Wednesday, August 21, 2013

App studio and so called "crapps"

You've probably heard, Microsoft recently released Windows Phone App Studio as a way to create Windows Phone apps from a template via a wizard. It's very similar to ZipApp which was created by Microsoft and Nokia (in the UK) earlier this year but that generates both a Windows 8 and a Windows Phone 8 app.

App Studio has been promoted as having two benefits or target uses.
1. It allows anyone to make a simple app for sharing with a few friends or family.
2. It allows developers a jump start in creating an app.

Anyway, there is always a discussion about the value of simple apps based on a template. Particularly if they are based on a single RSS feed.

As this is the sort of app that can easily be created with App Studio I thought I'd have a look at what it does when asked to create an app based on a single RSS feed.
I've also built a few apps based on a single RSS feed and wanted to see how what can be done with App Studio compares with what I can do.
Obviously I wouldn't classify the apps I've made as "crapp", rather they're examples of how to make a valid, useful app that supports a website by providing notification of new content and offline support.

I set out to get as close as I could to what I had created with App Studio as a way to see how good it is and if it was capable of creating something useful for people who'd rather use a tool than pay a professional developer.

Yes, I know that App Studio is still in beta and is likely to be further improved so it may be unfair to review it just yet. Maybe I'll review again it at a future point.

I only used the online wizard and didn't modify the generated code in any way. By doing so I was able to create a simple feed reader with a few advanced WP8 features. 
However, it was far from being ready for the store, let alone being a quality app.

My issues with what was created
  • The app must support a wide tile (even if there is no value in doing so)
  • The main tile must have a title (even if the image on the tile includes the app name/text)
  • The main tile must have static content on the back.
  • Some of the colors can be changed but not all of them. This means that it's not possible to make a theme agnostic app.
  • Some of the header text can be set to an empty string but the space on the page is still reserved for that text which means that if I don't want the header shown there will be a big space on screen.
  • Titles are never wrapped so if the RSS feed includes an article with a long title that title will never be fully visible. Headlines and titles are normally important. They encourage the user to read the full text so this is a big issue.
  • The main page of the generated app is a panorama with only one item in it. This is a bad practice as it is a poor use of the control and ends up in much wasted space and a header which can't be fully appreciated.
  • The margins and spacing within the app are wrong. They are inconsistent within the app and do not match the defacto, and recommended, standards of the platform.
  • If the RSS feed is from a Wordpress blog (and there are more than a few of them around) then it doesn't pick up the author of an item.
  • The full text of an item isn't retrieved/displayed in the app. This means that the user must click through to view the full text in the browser.
  • Images from within the text are not displayed.
  • The app supports speech to text to read an article. Unfortunately there's no way to stop reading once it has been started and if the speak button is tapped twice then the reading of the article is done twice.
  • While it is possible to share an article via the sharing task but no way to share via SMS or email. Both of which are highly recommended as a sharing options to have in an app.
  • There is no caching of information or offline support! - Yes really! In this day and age, the most basic and essential of requirements for a mobile application, one that is used in an inconsistently connected manner, isn't supported by the app. :(
  • The "live" tile is never updated. So it's not really live.
  • It's possible to pin an item. But if you tap on that pin when there is no network connection then the app crashes. Yes, in a "it won't pass certification" kind of way.
  • The app includes the ability to set a preconfigured image as the lock screen image. But that image is never updated and can't be modified or updated when new content is loaded.
  • The app can show lock screen notifications but this is only the hardcoded text set on the backof the tile when the app is created and is never changed.
  • The app include the ability to show lock screen status but has no icon configured and is completely pointless without an iconic tile. I had a flip tile. The main tile is never updated so the point of it being used to provide a notification on the lockscreen is worthless.
  • The app includes a splash screen. But it should be able to load fast enough to not need one. That one is there, and not even optional, shows a poorly optimised app that takes longer to start than it need.
  • The generated XAP is 2.56MB. For a simple RSS reader! A large part of this is due to the inclusion of a lot of third party libraries which aren't used by this app. A bit of selective compilation wouldn't go amiss.
  • And probably more...

Of course some of these issues may be considered as minor and are easy to fix by modifying the generated code.
My concern is that people see the app/code that is generated and, as it comes from Microsoft, assume that it is good and an example of the quality of apps that people should be producing.
Let's hope that anyone using the generator at the moment takes the time to modify the generated code accordingly.
Let's also hope that the App Studio is improved to address some of the above issues too.


  1. Windows Phone App Studio is about giving everyone the ability to create an app, regardless of experience.There fixed it:
    Microsoft would like to see more mobile apps in the Windows Phone store, and to that end it has launched a new online tool that it claims makes it possible for anyone to build their own crapp for the Windows Phone platform.

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