Google leaves Android App Inventor to the open source community

Google's move isn't evil, but it does show that being more product-focused means being less charitable

Last month's surprising closure of Google Labs may have its first significant casualty: Google has announced it is ending support for App Inventor for Android, but the company is ultimately leaving the fate of the project to the open source community.

Released in July of last year, App Inventor for Android was designed to enable nontechnical users to easily create Android smartphone apps, albeit ones that are relatively limited in functionality. The project hasn't enjoyed much in the way of broad success that could equate to future profits, which is why Google is cutting support for it along with the other slacker projects in the shuttered Labs.

However, Google recognizes that App Inventor has garnered success in the educational space, so the company plans to make the code open source and to "[explore] opportunities to support the educational use of App Inventor on an open source platform," according to the official Google App Inventor blog.

Won't somebody think of the children?

Google's decision to leave the fate of App Inventor in the hands of the open source world has expectedly met resistance from the project's more fervent supporters. Among them is David Wolber, a professor of computer science at the University of San Francisco and co-author of the book "App Inventor: Create Your Own Android Apps."

"I understand the Google Labs closure: Focus more on fewer projects. And Google has every right to cut Google labs projects -- users of such tools should be aware of the risk," Wolber wrote in his blog. "But in the case of App Inventor, the decision affects more than just your typical early adopter techie. It hurts kids and schools, and outfits like Iridescent, who use App Inventor in their Technovation after-school programs for high school girls, and Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab, which teaches app building to kids in Oakland, California. You've hurt professors and K-12 educators who have developed new courses and curricula with App Inventor at the core. You've hurt universities who have redesigned their programs."

Open is not dead

Google may indeed lose some credibility and trust with this particular decision, as it makes the company (in the right light) appear as a heartless corporate machine that's suddenly decided to deprive school children of an educational tool simply because it doesn't contribute to the bottom line. Further, some critics are jumping on the announcement as an opportunity to warn others that if Google could pull the plug on App Inventor, the company could very well pull the plug on any of its services upon which you rely.

There may be some truth to that bleak and jaded outlook: Google is more focused on products that have clear and measurable financial payback, so other projects that aren't enjoying widespread adoption could end up jettisoned. Google is upfront about that, though -- and there's a lesson here that the company is serious that not all things it offers will last forever. Still, the notion that Google might suddenly and arbitrarily pull the plug on any ol' product -- say, Gmail or Google Docs -- is preposterous. No need to abandon Google because of this.

Also, all is not necessarily lost for App Inventor. Again, Google isn't simply killing the project; the company is making it open source. If there truly is sufficient demand for App Inventor in the educational world (and beyond), then one or more third-party developers should step forward, pick up the code, and do something with it. Nature and capitalism abhor a vacuum.

Should that happen, the difference will be that users, including those in the nonprofit community, may have to invest some of their own resources to continue deriving benefit from App Inventor, rather than relying entirely on Google's charity.

Then again, Google did (vaguely) note that it is exploring opportunities to support the educational use of the project. Perhaps with enough pushback from the right people, the company will do more than simply explore those opportunities.

Ultimately, Google isn't doing evil here, at least not in any extreme sense; it is a sign that the company is becoming less charitable as part of its product focus, however.

This story, "Google leaves Android App Inventor to the open source community," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.