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This article by Felicia Kamriani and Dr. Krishnendu Roy, authors of the book App Inventor 2 Essentials, covers what is MIT App Inventor 2 and why you should learn to use it? There are apps for just about everything—entertainment, socializing, dining, traveling, philanthropy, shopping, education, navigation, and so on. And just about everyone with a smartphone or tablet is using them to make their lives easier or better. But you have decided to move from just using mobile apps to creating mobile apps. Congratulations! Thanks to MIT App Inventor 2, mobile app development is no longer exclusively the realm of experienced software programmers. It empowers anyone with an idea to create technology. This book offers people of all ages a step-by-step guide to creating mobile apps with App Inventor. While this visual programming language is an ideal tool for people who have little or no coding experience, don’t be fooled into thinking that the capabilities of MIT App Inventor 2 are basic! The simple drag-and-drop blocks format is actually a powerful software language capable of creating complex and sophisticated mobile apps.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of MIT App Inventor 2, and of your new role as a mobile app developer. You are in for more skill building than you ever imagined! Of course, you will learn to code mobile apps, but there are countless other valuable skills weaved into the mobile app building process. Most significantly, you will learn to think differently, master the design-thinking process, become a problem solver, and be resourceful. This article also offers tips on brainstorming app ideas and design principles. Lastly, it reveals the potential of MIT App Inventor 2 and showcases an array of mobile apps so that you, a budding app designer, can begin thinking about the full spectrum of possibilities.

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What is MIT App Inventor 2?

MIT App Inventor 2 is a free, drag-and-drop, blocks-based visual programming language that enables people, regardless of coding experience, to create mobile apps for Android devices. In 2008, iPhones and Android phones had just hit the market and MIT professor Hal Abelson had the idea to create an easy-to-use programming language to make mobile apps that would harness the power of the emerging smartphone technology. Equipped with fast processors, large memory storage, and sensors, smartphones were enabling people to monitor and interact with their environment like never before. Abelson’s goal was to democratize the mobile app development process by making it easy for anyone to create mobile apps that were meaningful and important to them. While on sabbatical at Google in Mountain View, CA, Abelson worked with engineer Mark Friedman to create App Inventor (yes, it was originally called Google App Inventor!).

In 2011, Abelson brought App Inventor to MIT and together with the Media Lab and CSAIL (the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab) created the Center for Mobile Learning. In December 2013, Abelson and his team of developers launched MIT App Inventor 2, (from here on referred to as MIT App Inventor) an even easier to use web-based application version with an Integrated Development Environment (IDE). This means that you can see your app come to life on your smartphone as you are building it. All you need is a computer (Mac or PC), an internet connection (or a USB connection), a Google Gmail account and an Android device (phone or tablet). But, if you don’t have an Android device, don’t worry! You can still create apps with the on-screen Emulator. The MIT App Inventor (http://appinventor.mit.edu/) browser includes a Designer Screen, a graphical user interface (GUI) where you create the look and feel of the app (choosing which components you want it to include) and the Blocks Editor, where you add behavior to the app by coding with colorful blocks. Users build apps by dragging components and blocks from menu bars onto a workspace and a connected Android device (or Emulator) displays progress in real time. All the apps are saved on the MIT server and once completed, they can be can be shared on the MIT App Inventor Gallery, submitted to app contests (such as MIT App of the Month) or uploaded to the Google Play store (or other app marketplaces) for sharing or selling.

To date, MIT App Inventor has empowered millions of people to become creators of technology by learning to be mobile app developers. And now, you will become one of them!

Understanding your role as a mobile app developer

Since you are reading this book, it is safe to assume that not only do you regularly use mobile apps, but on occasion, you have also had the thought, “I wish there were an app for that!” Now, with the help of MIT App Inventor and this guidebook to mobile app development, you will soon be able to say, “I can create an app for that!”

In embracing your new role as a mobile app developer, you will not just be learning how to code, but you will also learn an array of other valuable skills. You will learn to think differently. Every time you open an app, you will start looking at it from the developer’s perspective rather than just as a user. You will start noticing what functions are logical and smooth and which are choppy and unintuitive. You will learn to get inspiration from your environment. What type of app could make the attendance process at my club/class/meeting more streamlined or efficient? What app idea could help solve the problem of inaccurate inventory at the gym? You will learn to become a data gatherer without even realizing it. When people make comments about apps, your ears will perk up and you will take note. You will start asking questions like why do you prefer Waze to Google Maps? You will learn to think logically so that you can tell the computer in a step-by-step manner how to perform an operation. You will learn to become a problem solver. Any coder will confirm that programming is an iterative process. It’s a continual cycle of coding, troubleshooting and debugging. Trial and error will become second nature, as will taking a step back to figure out why something that just worked a minute ago now seems broken. And, you will learn to assume the role of a designer. It is no longer accurate to merely depict programmers holed up by themselves at a computer creating white text-based code on black screens. Coders of mobile apps are also designers who think about and create attractive and intuitive user interfaces (UIs). Much of the design work happens not at the computer—it includes conversations with potential users, involves pens paper, and post-it notes, and uses story-boards or sketches. Only once you have your app designed on paper do you sit down at the computer to begin coding. And then, you will not find the traditional black and white interface, as the MIT App Inventor platform is interactive and full of colorful blocks that snap together.

Brainstorming app ideas

Chances are you already have an idea for a mobile app. But if not, how can you think of one? Sometimes, you have so many ideas; it’s hard to narrow them down to just one. The best way to start brainstorming app ideas is by starting with what you know. What’s an app you wish existed? What’s an app you and your friends, co-workers, or family members would use, need, or like? What’s a problem in your community, network, or circle of friends that could be solved with a digital solution? Maybe, you loan out books to each friends, but don’t have a system to keep track of who borrowed what. Maybe, you want to do a clothing swap with people who are your size so you want to post pictures of the items that you have available for trade and you want to view listed items in your size. Maybe, you have a favorite app that you use all the time but wish it just had this one other feature. Maybe, when you meet your friends in a public place, it’s hard to know if they’re nearby without a lot of texting back and forth, so you want to create an app that shows everyone’s location on one screen. The possibilities are endless! The key to successful brainstorming is to write down all of your ideas no matter how wild they are and talk to people about them to get feedback. Input from others is an essential part of the research needed to ensure that your app idea becomes a successful app that people will want, use, and/or buy. On a recent business trip, we had an idea for a travel app because we always seemed to forget at least one essential item. Over breakfast at the hotel, we discussed the app idea with a couple of colleagues and received amazing insight that we hadn’t thought of like a reminder notification to fill any prescriptions well before the trip and a weather component so we could be sure to pack appropriate clothes for each destination. The more people you talk to, the more market research you will conduct and the more defined the overall app concept will be.

Summary

This article highlights the many other learning outcomes from engaging in the mobile app development process. Taking an app concept and building it out into an actual mobile app is both a concrete and a creative process. Attention to detail and iteration is vital for both code and design to work effectively and synergistically. Whether you’re creating a game to play with your friend, an app to promote philanthropy involvement on campus, or an app to kickstart a recycling program in your neighborhood, the design thinking process is as much a part of app development as coding. Skills such as brainstorming, research, interviewing, synthesizing, ideating, storyboarding, designing, troubleshooting, problem solving, and testing are not only integral to app building, they are also transferrable to other disciplines, helping to unlock creativity and flow in any endeavor.

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