Can’t Code? Don’t Code!


Student coding at a hackthon event (Flickr: Photo by @matylda on Twitter)

Student coding at a hackthon event (Flickr: Photo by @matylda on Twitter)

The digital economy brings with it great opportunities for individuals with great ideas to bring them to life with no more than a computer, an internet connection, and some programming know-how.

Ah yes, programming know-how.

Back in the 1980s, personal computers encouraged a generation to try their hand at coding applications. The BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore VIC20 were set to work by their owners typing in a program using the BASIC programming language. Magazines featured pages of program source code listings to type in to create games, word processors and graphics. The opportunity to try out new ideas and code something yourself – with the satisfaction it brought – was the catalyst to starting many a great career in computing.

By the time desktop PCs running Windows 3.1 or IBM OS/2 came into vogue in the 1990s most applications were pre-written, and their owners were reduced to writing spreadsheet macros.

So now in the 2010s, unless you have a deep seated love for programming or a career in IT development, you probably can’t code. I wonder how many ideas have been lost because of this? Fortunately a group of highly intelligent people working at MIT and Google did too and have come up with a spectacular answer called ‘AppInventor’.

Can’t Code? Don’t Code! Instead build your app by from a gallery of tools onto a blank screen, then use jigsaw piece style building blocks to connect them all together and apply the logic you require.

Take a look at this code block. Can you guess what it does (answer below this image)?
An example code block in AppInventor

When the user of this appication has typed ther name into a Text box called TextboxName then clicked a a button called ButtonSayHello, this code checks the current time and builds a sentence that wishes the user ‘Good Morning / Afternoon / Evening’ as appropriate and sends it to a Label called LabelStatus to be displayed.

I’ve been teaching my colleagues how to use AppInventor to create real android mobile apps that can be really packaged up and added to the Google Play Store. It’s certainly caught their imagination and several teams in our forthcoming internal hackathon will be using it to create hacks.

They say it’s enabled them to actually bring their ideas to life.
I say it’s democratising the digital economy.
That’s a very good thing indeed.

You can follow my four-part Can’t Code! Don’t Code! video series on coding using AppInventor on the Tesco Labs Vimeo channel (click to watch in the following order):

  1. Say My Name (getting started with a basic app)
  2. Store My Data (saving and reading information)
  3. Read My News (getting data from across the internet, in this case a news RSS feed)
  4. Draw My Graphics (draw lines and create bouncing ball sprites)