Microsoft has decided to try web-based app development for non-developers. It’s called Windows Phone App Studio and the beta launched this week. The news may have passed you by, either because you don’t care about Windows Phone, or more because dumbed-down app development (while nice for n00bs) doesn’t sound particularly powerful.
Windows Phone, for all of its nice design elements, has been a tough platform to get excited about. While the number of apps it has is rising and the Windows Phone app store now has suitable alternatives to most popular iOS apps, it still feels secluded from any mainstream buzz.
The issue is not whether Microsoft, known for creating rock solid development environments, can be the first major platform to make a good WYSIWYG app maker. The bigger question here is whether non-developers can (or will) be attracted to the black art of creating mobile applications.
It’s almost contradictory to have a developer portal aimed at non-developers: An obvious waste of time and resources. Anyone with the desire to create an app should also have the drive to learn enough programing skills to get them close--shouldn’t they? That’s a plausible argument, but there are certainly a lot of early-adopter types who might try building apps if it didn’t require the overhead of learning programming first. And maybe that will be the gateway to learning to code. Of course, learning to code isn’t quick and painless, but people have to get sucked into it somehow.
Yet there’s one problem: Most of the tasks people want to automate with software are surely too complex to be handled by an app built in a no-code IDE. How powerful could this thing really be? I decided to test out App Studio to see what the use cases might be.
I’ve seen tools like this before; Google tried the visual editor for Android with App Inventor and found so little interest that it was eventually abandoned and donated to MIT to be open-sourced. Giving someone with mediocre interest the tools to create mediocre (at best) apps just didn’t seem appealing to anyone.
For curiosity’s sake I went through the steps and signed up. Initially optimistic that somehow building a simple app would reveal more insight into Microsoft’s vision for Windows Phone, I was let down almost immediately. The templates that were available consisted of building things like a menu for a restaurant, a company profile sharing basic info, or apps for sharing my favorite band, story, or place. Predictably limited, the overall process was more delightful than getting punched in the face, but at the end I was left wondering why I had spent the time; I still didn’t have any desire to purchase a Windows Phone, and the freshly created app I built wasn’t reason enough.
The idea of a simple, web-based app creator isn’t the foolish part of this scheme. Like I said, people have to get sucked into programming somehow, and if this helps even one person get motivated to learn to code, then it’s a win.
The foolish part is thinking the people who need this will actually use it. More ambitious than the App Studio technology itself is the idea that you can convert average users into app creators.
Those looking for the next revolution in app development are probably expecting it to come in the form of touch. It might be smarter for Microsoft to focus its efforts on building a developer environment that is exclusively touch-based, made for tablets; the new interaction might remove some of the metaphors from programming, which could make it easier to grasp for people who already have the initiative but no one to teach them the basics.
Microsoft is already betting big on touch; if it was important enough to center Windows 8 around, and important enough to justify the Surface project, it should be robust enough to use for development. Already, the more interesting seeds of touch-based development are taking place on iPad and iOS. Moving to a new input method will be a long transition, and Windows Phone App Studio in its current form isn’t the right start. Microsoft should do away with the gimmicks and go for the long play.
[Image: Flickr user J Kivinen]