Last month, Google announced that it would be shuttering Google Labs, a site for many Google prototypes and experimental projects. At the time, Google said that some of the projects in Labs would graduate to "full-fledged" products, but others would be terminated. And unfortunately, it appears as though one of those that's getting the axe is Android App Inventor.
App Inventor was a DIY tool for building Android apps. Although it was the object of a scathing review by The New York Times' David Pogue, it was hugely popular among educators, particularly as it required no programming knowledge.
App Inventor was created with the idea that anyone should be able to tinker on their smartphones and that anyone should easily be able to design and develop their own apps. Built by Google with input from MIT professor Hal Abelson, Android App Inventor aimed in part to help promote an interest in programming and computer science by giving non-experts an easy way to get started. It's no surprise with Professor Abelson's involvement that App Inventor borrowed heavily from that other entry-level MIT programming project Scratch. Like Scratch, App Inventor uses a drag-and-drop visual interface that allows you to assemble build block commands and from these, build your app.
But now with Google Labs' impending closure, App Inventor will be discontinued at the end of the year. The source code will be opened and made available, and Google says it is "exploring opportunities to support the educational use of App Inventor on an open source platform."
That may be a small, small sliver of hope for educators who've used the tool. But as one educator has commented on the Google Labs site, "This is devastating news for me, a high school teacher. I've introduced many students to the beauty and joy of computer science by starting them in App Inventor. These are students who would never have believed they could be programmers, and App Inventor opened a door of opportunity for these students that they thought had been closed to them."
The decision to close Google Labs has been interpreted by some as an indication that Google's new CEO Larry Page is bent on sharpening the company's focus. It's a pity that a project that helped sharpen the programming skills of students falls outside this new Google roadmap.