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MIT to Launch 'NFC App Inventor' to Ease Development of Apps for Android

Mar 28 2012

While the number of NFC apps available in Google’s app store has grown substantially over the past several months, it isn’t easy for nonapp developers to create services for the expanding number of Android NFC phone models.

Next week the Center for Mobile Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., will introduce a Web-based service to enable a much broader range of smartphone users to more easily create apps for NFC-enabled Android phones.

UPDATE: The Center for Mobile Learning, along with its partners on the project, NXP Semiconductors, UPM RFID and digital advertising agency Isobar, will demonstrate an “NFC App Inventor” at the 3rd Annual Auto-ID-Sensing Solutions Expo to be held at the MIT Media Lab. NFC Cluster Boston, a group that promotes the development and marketability of NFC technology and part of the MIT Enterprise Forum, will be involved in the demo and expo. END UPDATE.

“App Inventor is intended to make it easy for kids and beginning programmers to create their own apps and explore the capabilities of smartphones,” said Hal Abelson, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT and a pioneer in mobile app development, in a statement.

Like the MIT App Inventor, which the university inherited from Android owner, Google, and which was developed there under Abelson during a sabbatical from MIT, the NFC App Inventor will be Internet-based. It is actually an NFC application-programming interface for the App Inventor. But it is still under development, and a beta version of the service will be demonstrated at the expo next week.

UPDATE: There are some limitations with the App Inventor for Android, according to David Wolber, professor of computer science at the University of San Francisco and co-author with Abelson and two others of the book, App Inventor: Create Your Own Android AppsFor example, there has been limited ability to build user interfaces for apps, which also do not have access to all the data and functionality of the Android phones on which they run. There is also limited access to the phone's contact list and to data from the Web.

But Stephen Miles, a researcher at MIT and co-founder of the NFC Cluster Boston, told NFC Times that about 80,000 developers and others have downloaded the App Inventor. And he said he believes the App Inventor and the NFC APIs for it have much greater significance than just the number of downloads–noting that such innovations as E Ink used in such e-books as the Amazon Kindle and the Guitar Hero music video game series originated in the MIT Media Lab. END UPDATE.   

Of course, with the NFC component of the App Inventor, would-be app developers will not be creating services for the Google Wallet. The wallet API is unpublished.

They would mainly be tag-reading apps, such as those for launching mobile Web sites and triggering content downloads or perhaps pairing of devices. And the apps will be intended for personal use, not to sell in the Google Play Store, formerly known as Android Market.

“You develop the app inside the Web browser and get a link to download it into your device,” Yuval Zukerman, vice president and director of mobile for Isobar, told NFC Times. “It’s enough to give you the functionality that you need.”

For example, users could use the NFC App Inventor to create a user interface and program tags for shopping lists. They could put tags on the wall associated with bread and milk and by tapping the tags, the app could remind them of what they need at the store.

While untrained users already program tags and perhaps create rudimentary apps on their phones, the NFC App Inventor is designed to take much less time to build the simple services, Zukerman said.

“You expand the reach of NFC into an even greater audience,” he said.

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