Apple Cooks up DIY iOS Apps

There are more than 550,000 iOS apps. Imagine how many more there would be if creating them required little or even no coding experience.That’s the basic premise behind “Content Configuration for Device Platforms,” an Apple patent application (No. 20120089933) published in April. Apple’s proposed tool aims to avoid shortcomings that are found in similar GUI-centric products for website development.

“In most instances, such tools can only assist users with basic features,” says Apple in its patent application. “Users wanting customized elements must still have knowledge of one or more computer-programming languages. For example, while some web-content development tools can assist with the creation of basic hyper-text markup language (HTML) content, these tools have even more limited capabilities to edit cascading style sheet (CSS) elements.”

Apple aims to avoid those kinds of drawbacks. For example, “the authoring tool leverages a JavaScript library running in the background to enhance the code elements by writing additional code that facilitates the smooth functioning of the objects defined by the code elements, even when those objects are implemented on diverse devices. The JavaScript library instantiates the objects specified by the user using the authoring tool and generates additional code (HTML/CSS/JavaScript) as needed to display the content. This allows the authoring tool to substitute alternate implementations for various situations, such as diverse devices, as needed.”

The mention of “diverse devices” is noteworthy since device fragmentation is currently a major headache in the Android world but not in iOS. It’s possible that Apple plans — as rumored — to expand its iOS device lineup into smaller iPads and larger iPhones, as well as PCs. If so, the proposed tool could help smooth over the differences that would result.

HyperCard for Mobile?

Not surprisingly, Apple declined to provide input for this article, so we asked three experienced iOS developers to give their thoughts on the patent application. Here are highlights of what they had to say:

“This sort of looks like a modern incarnation of HyperCard,” says one major game developer who preferred not to be identified for fear of irritating Apple. “HyperCard was years ahead of its time — so far ahead, in fact, that it didn’t really fit into the market at the time of its release.

“Despite solving a problem that nobody really had yet, HyperCard brought basic application development to the masses. Kids could develop apps in it. It was visual, powerful and easy to use. Depending on how Apple positions this new tool, I can see it playing a role similar to HyperCard,” says the anonymous game developer.

Another developer — Charley Price, co-founder and chief creative officer of Hidden Variable Studios — agrees that the tool appears useful. “While that’s no doubt a great help for any native developer, it will certainly help novice developers the most,” says Price.

Even so, Price cautions that the tool alone can’t guarantee an app’s success. “While UI is important, there’s so much more that goes into building a great app,” says Price. “You will still need an innovative concept or a unique take on an existing consumer need, which adds a fair amount of complexity and no doubt requires a fair degree of programming know-how. There’s no silver bullet that offsets the many nuanced complexities of development, but this should encourage many more developers to give it a go, which is great to see!”

Android, meanwhile, has a few tools of its own to make the learning curve as flat as possible. One is example is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s App Inventor, which is currently under development.

HTML5 = Loss of Control?

Some developers wonder why Apple would want to encourage the development of Web apps, which are inherently cross-platform, rather than maintaining its current ecosystem, including the 30 percent royalty that Apple would lose in an HTML5 world. In fact, the tool has features for accommodating the kind of device diversity that cross-platform development entails.

“At the moment, HTML5 on mobile is pretty terrible, so there’s no particular threat to Apple’s app ecosystem,” says the anonymous game developer. “But it’s certainly not in their long-term interest to support a transition away from native apps and toward HTML5 apps.

“Finally, HTML5 and Web-based apps are naturally much less responsive than native applications. Apple is interested in having the best, most responsive, least complicated user interface on its devices. It’s hard to imagine that they’d be satisfied with what HTML5 can produce today, though I suspect it will eventually be good enough.”

The proposed tool may be less about expanding the iOS ecosystem and more about maintaining the status quo, says Amit Knaani, ooVoo’s head of product.

“The patent describes an authoring tool that produces multimedia content based on Web technologies such as HTML5, CSS and JavaScript,” says Knaani. “The described tool isn’t a software-development tool, not even for someone with little or no development experience. The description resembles the latest authoring tools from Apple, such as iAd Producer or, more recently, iBooks Author. This patent might just exist to protect the next generation of these tools.”