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The App Gap – the app-creation market for designers and writers

Apps are ubiquitous – Apple’s store alone has seen over 25 billion downloads since 2008 – but have you ever tried creating one? Many designers, like me, have little knowledge of coding. So knowing where to start when creating an app is frustrating. If a designer wants to create a print piece, they may turn to software like InDesign; for video, perhaps Final Cut Pro; for web design, Dreamweaver. But where do you start when designing an app?

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I’d been looking for a way to create simple children’s picture book apps that are designed for mobile platforms, as opposed to apps that are merely repurposed print books (many examples of which can be found on the App Store). I also needed an intuitive, design-orientated GUI that would allow me to assemble my ideas with no need to learn coding.

Apple’s own development suite is clearly for coders, but it at least alerted me to the daunting series of hoops to jump through – including registering with the IRS in America – in order to get an app onto the App Store.

Adobe, stalwart of the design software industry, has been addressing the app gap with various updates to Creative Suite. InDesign now has a new array of tools  to help app creation. However, for full functionality – allowing testing and uploading of multiple versions of apps – an annual subscription to Creative Cloud is required. At roughly £50 per month this seems expensive and locks the user in to Adobe’s services.

We know that Apple’s iOS operating system doesn’t support Flash (also owned by Adobe) but there are workarounds and conversion tools available. FlashBuilder  promises that a novice can build a basic mobile app in 5 minutes. But one look at the code-orientated tutorial was enough to tell me this wasn’t what I was looking for.

I also looked at iBooks Author, an Apple tool for creating iBooks. However it was heavily templated, and based upon the editorial model of print-based books. Again, the range of tools was too narrow for my purposes.

A wealth of online services and app-creation apps also promise to help you build a mobile application in seconds. But again, these are largely themed or templated, and seem to lack more advanced animation and interactivity.

However, after visiting the London Book Fair in 2012, I spoke to reps and developers from several small businesses from the UK and abroad who were actively seeking to plug the gap in the app-creation market for designers and writers. A dedicated App Zone allowed me to try out a sample of innovative and considered solutions, ranging from bespoke plug-ins for existing software such as InDesign, to stand-alone software created specifically for creating interactive picture-book apps on the Mac.

The stand-out offering for me was Storybuilder by Robot Media , who are based in Spain. Currently in development (so still quite buggy), Storybuilder is a simple and intuitive GUI-based tool for creating picture-book based apps. It has allowed me to create the framework for a complete interactive children’s book. Publishing the final version is simply a matter of hitting the ‘publish’ button – Robot Media do the rest. The software is free to use and there are no costs if stories are distributed for free. And, essentially, the author owns everything.

To my mind, Storybuilder has the potential to do more than create interactive children’s stories. Whether it could become the designer’s app creation tool of choice remains to be seen. But it points the way with its considered approach to simplifying the app publishing process, providing the designer with a suite of tools not dependent upon coding, and pricing it to be within reach of the many, not the few.

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