In an effort to bolster its volume of Windows Phone 8 apps, Microsoft has introduced a web-based front end to help prospective app developers fasttrack their application development. The Windows Phone App Studio offers beginners a selection of templates to hit the ground running. Slightly more experienced users can start from a (nearly) blank slate. Point-and-click setup allows you to link your application with several pre-defined data sources like HTML5, static content, streaming web content, RSS feeds, and Bing content. Application design is as easy as selecting a color pallet and background images from either a selection of delivered options or your own images from your local system or SkyDrive. In the rest of this article, I’ll introduce some of the features and provide some of my impressions.
IN THE BEGINNING
The power of the App Studio is manifold. First and foremost is the speed at which you can be up and running. The pre-delivered templates offer a variety of designs to choose from and pre-load your app with a recommended structure that you can modify if you so choose.
As wonderful as this sounds, you will quickly realize that the templates are really just subtly different re-arrangements of the same basic building blocks. Not that it’s a bad thing, per se.
CONFIGURE APP CONTENT
Here’s the meat n’ potatoes of the app building process. After you have selected a basic template (or no template at all), you have to define several key elements:
- Data Sources
A Section is the basic navigational element in your application. These equate to the different areas you reach by horizontally scrolling through your app. You are limited to a maximum of six sections in the App Studio tool. But, don’t worry if you need more; you’ll can continue development using the SDK (see the Making It Your Own section below). Your template will have some pre-defined sections which you can use as-is, modify or delete. Edit the section details to name it, provide a description and assign your Data Source. Depending on the type of Data Source, you may also choose from different layouts for each section and page. The layouts determine how information is displayed in each section.
There are seven pre-defined Data Sources available for your use in the App Studio:
- You can specify an RSS feed and the app will automatically pull posts into a format you choose.
- The HTML source will allow you to input your own static HTML5 code.
- A listing of YouTube clips can be displayed by specifying either a YouTube username or query string.
- Similarly, a username or query string can be used to display a Flickr stream.
- A Bing search can be displayed for a static search string.
- The first of two “advanced” data sources, a custom Menu can be specified if you prefer menu-based navigation for portions of your app.
- The second “advanced” data source — and the final in our list — is a Collection. This source allows you to create a database, of sorts, by specifying custom tables and fields. You can then later map these fields to “bindings” in your selected layout.
Finally, each section will contain one or more Pages. Each page can have its own layout and, when combined with a Collection, display quite a bit of information about your subject in the form of Bindings.
CONFIGURE APP STYLE
Once your content is set, you can start selecting your visual design elements. App Studio gives you the power to control several key aspects of the design.
For your app’s Theme, you can choose from the Dark Style or Light Style. Or you can go your own way and select the Custom Style, complete with a custom background and color options.
What Windows Phone app would be complete without a Live Tile? Fortunately, you have three options in the App Studio: the Flip option alternates between your app’s icon and a line or two of “Back content”, the Cycle option allows your app to cycle through a selection of images from one of your content areas, or choose the Iconic option and feature your app’s icon with several lines of added static text.
Finally, you can opt to add Splash and Lock screen images. Select from Microsoft’s options or upload your own.
It’s worth noting that every image included in the template — icons, backgrounds, app content, Splash/Lock images — can be uploaded by the user. This allows you to really set your app apart from the rest, and that is important when using a template-based tool.
Give your app a fitting title, a catchy description, and few other small options and you’re done.
The final step in the process is to Generate your app. Doing so is easy and typically only takes a few minutes. Generating your app allows you to download and install your app to your phone for testing purposes. It also allows you to download your source code for further development in Visual Studio (the Express 2012 version is freely available for personal use for Windows Phone development).
GOOD. BUT NOT PERFECT.
One of my biggest complaints about this tool is the lack of on-screen documentation available. I ran into issues when trying to upload my own images, for example. I found few guidelines for recommended resolution for user-submitted images leaving me to either take a guess or go hunting through development standards to find my own answer.
Another issue that I crashed into was a glass-ceiling on Collection record limits. It appears as though the app is limited to 40 records per collection, but without a error message it’s left to the user to figure it out.
As it is, the process lends itself to trial-and-error. The good news is that it’s easy to delete and create projects as needed, so your errors won’t necessarily continue to haunt you down the road. But once you understand what you can and can’t do, the process becomes easier.
There’s also the philosophical element to this. What is the real motivation behind this initiative? On the one hand, this tool puts a development platform in the hands of normal, everyday people and can perhaps start bridging the gap between user and developer. But, it is hard to ignore the other side of the coin that suggests Microsoft is simply creating another avenue through which to bolster its app numbers. I’m in favor of enabling users to develop, but would prefer a system that promotes quality over quantity.
I think the real innovation is what Microsoft is trying to do for users. And it’s something that I haven’t seen from other app platforms. As an actual user of this tool, I can vouch for it. It works. Visit my Apps page to see a sample of the results. I will soon (hopefully) have my own app available in the Windows Phone store for all to consume. And hopefully it won’t get lost in a sea of cr-apps.