An Android app element that searches lists being programmed in MIT App Inventor.
Computer Column #295
John P. Reid, firstname.lastname@example.org
There are many ways that custom apps for smartphones and tablets could be useful in the antiques world. A dealer could make the shop inventory, location, hours, and contact information available to mobile users. A guide to shops in a tourist area is often published on line by an owners’ group. A collectors’ club could make its publications and database available to members on the go. Show promoters might provide current information for attendees. Auctioneers could publish a mobile catalog. Here is a look at how custom apps can be created.
This not going to be a pep talk saying that we should be creating apps ourselves. The best apps are written by professional computer programmers. A newcomer cannot pick up programming in the more powerful languages, such as Java or C, without training and practice.
An app creator has to decide what devices to target. Creating an Android-only app will offend the Apple iOS people, which is 50% of the market, and vice versa. Within either operating system, one must decide what versions to support and whether to target smartphones, tablets, or both. Then there are the less common operating systems such as BlackBerry, Symbian, and various Windows mobile systems. However, most app designers limit themselves to iOS and Android.
Making phone calls, handling pictures, and accepting text input is fairly simple with any one of the create-an-app Web sites described later, but an app that does meaningful computer work is created with the tools supplied by the operating system inventors. These tools include a programmer’s editor, often called an integrated development environment (IDE), and an operating system definition, often called a software development kit (SDK). The Apple iOS tools use the Objective-C programming language. Android tools use the Java language. Both are demanding.
Anyone developing iOS (https://developer.apple.com/programs/ios) or Android (http://developer.android.com) apps needs to meet a few requirements. Android app development can be done on a Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X computer. An Intel-based Mac running Mac OS X Snow Leopard or later is needed to develop iOS apps. Registration for iOS developers is $99 a year and allows uploading finished apps for public access. Android development software may be downloaded for free, but a one-time fee of $25 is charged before apps can be uploaded for distribution. Apple must approve an app before it will be posted for the world to download. Google publishes standards for Android app quality but leaves enforcement to the creator. If an app is not offered for free, Google and Apple will take a percentage of each sale.
A person envisioning an app with substantial monetary benefits should stop now and think about paying a professional. There are thousands of eager young programmers and a quite a few grizzled old ones ready to work with you. They are probably listed in the local Yellow Pages under “Computer-System Design.” There are plenty on line too, but there is something to be said for sitting down and working out your needs face to face. That is an important part of a programmer’s job. Prices are impossible to estimate, but they likely start in the low four figures for simple apps. Check references and reputation as you would those of any contractor, whether hiring local or on-line talent.
Professionals are not limited to using the Apple or Android programming tools. If only iPad apps are wanted, a graphics designer might use Adobe Digital Publishing Suite in conjunction with Adobe InDesign CS6 (www.adobe.com/products/indesign.html). This requires a substantial investment in training, software, and equipment. If only Android apps are wanted, a programmer might use the Google SL4A interpreter (http://code.google.com/p/android-scripting) and a scripting language such as Python or Perl.
For those who want to go it alone, there are many books on app design in bookstores and at on-line booksellers. There are also on-line tutorials.
Simple apps with limited features may be created with one of the many on-line tools. The simplest and least feature-laden will be described first. Some are free; some have substantial prices. Just a few will be described here.
AppsGeyser (www.appsgeyser.com) can convert an existing Web site to an Android app for a tablet or smartphone in an hour or two working on line. The app links the viewer to the Web site. The viewer could, of course, just type in the URL of the original site, but that takes more time and thought. There is no charge for creating the app. Publishing the app to Google Play requires a one-time $25 payment. An optional arrangement allows the addition of an advertising banner shared 50-50 with AppsGeyser.
AppMakr (www.appmakr.com) makes an iOS app from an existing blog or other material syndicated by a Rich Site Summary (RSS) or Atom feed to on-line subscribers. There are quite a few antiques dealers, shows, and publications that maintain blogs. Most blog editors, including Google’s popular Blogger, have RSS feed capability. In addition, photo galleries, sharing with social networks, and advertising networks are possible. Design is done on line. It is possible to send alerts directly to subscribers. App design may be tried for free, but full capability costs $79 per app per month, and the usual app store fees apply. AppMakr has recently added the ability to create Android apps with limited capabilities.
Andromo (www.andromo.com) creates Android apps on line. Photos, text, maps, blog feeds, mobile Web sites, sound, video, contacts, e-books, and social network connections can be included. The designer selects features from menus. Pricing is $25 per month, but discounts are sometimes offered on yearly contracts.
App Press (www.app-press.com) uses a Photoshop-like interface for its on-line iOS and Android creator. Graphics, text, and menu elements are laid out on line on multiple overlays. Even the touch-sensitive areas are defined this way. Prices start at $90 per month. The usual Apple developer fees and Apple and Android store fees apply.
Buzztouch (www.buzztouch.com) creates both iOS and Android apps on line. It is somewhat complicated to use, but an app can include menus, e-mail, texting, launching other apps on the device, maps, Web HTML code, GPS tracking, Microsoft Word documents, Excel documents, PowerPoint documents, Adobe PDF documents, images, videos, passwords, and quizzes. Dozens of additional features including social networks are available at small additional cost. Creating up to three apps is free. Membership for unlimited apps is $79.99 per year and includes free use of many of the added-cost items. Posting on app stores requires the usual Apple and Google fees.
MIT App Inventor (http://appinventor.mit.edu) started as a Google project but is now maintained by students and teachers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It no longer has an association with Google, but a free Google account is needed because projects are stored on line at Google. Some helper software must be installed on your Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X computer, but the development is done on line. App Inventor creates apps by using the Android SDK in a graphical manner. Many but not all Android features are available and can be dragged in position as “blocks.” Property panels define block details. MIT App Inventor is complicated and a bit intimidating at first look, but there are video tutorials, and books are available. App Inventor is free, but the usual $25 will be collected by Google when the first app is uploaded to the store for download by others. App Inventor is labeled experimental but is well developed. New features are being added constantly.
App Inventor is also a good way for newcomers to learn programming methods and terminology without actual programmer coding, and it is used as an introductory step in high school and college programming classes.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest