Monday, November 04, 2013

App Studio has been updated and shows some improvements

Having been critical of App Studio in the past and noting some of its short comings, the fact that it was recently updated deserves a review of these latest changes.

Rather than revisit the app I produced as a test previously I decided to go through the whole process of creating a new, minimal, app of the most basic variety. An app that just shows content from a single RSS feed.
For fun, this time, I've built it based on this blog. Not really a site that would justify and app but a fun source of content for me to play with.

First the good news
There are definitely improvements in the apps being generated now.
The biggest improvement is the offline/data caching support.
In turn this means that the apps that are generated could be submitted to the store and should not fail store certification testing.
There are also additional configurable options on the site which adds further improvements to the generated apps.
The generated code also no longer includes unused additional libraries. This brings down the size of the XAP file and in this instance smaller is better.

The bad news
Things are still far from perfect. Here's a few of the most obvious things I noticed:

  • Images aren't well formatted. It appears that a square version of images is created for reuse and this is used regardless of where it's displayed in the app. The square image is also very small and so can be hard to read when scaled up. Especially when the image is tapped to show a larger version.

  • On the page showing details all text is in a single control. This suffers the limit on the amount of content that can be displayed in a single control and so some of the text isn't visible.
  • The alignment and spacing on this page is also consistent.
  • If scrolled part way down an article/story/post and then you swipe to the side to go to the next article the scroll offset isn't reset so the new article is displayed part way down.
  • The details page contains the same page header as the panorama. This is unnecessarily large and a waste of space by providing undue prominence to the screen element that probably isn't even needed on the page.
  • Reading of articles (via TTS) still doesn't have a way to stop the reading once started and selecting it multiple times will queue multiple readings of the story.
  • Pinning an article still creates a poor quality live tile. (If I don't blog about live tiles more soon - pester me about this.) There also isn't anything to tell you when an article is already pinned. Trying to pin it again just does nothing.

  • The spacing between articles isn't consistent. Presumably because whitespace at the end of the snippet that is displayed isn't being accounted for.

  • The "go to source" link from the app bar which should take the user to the original article in the web browser doesn't always work correctly. It appears to just be using the first link in the source XML but this isn't always the one you want. In this instance it's the "application/atom+xml" link to post comments. As you can see from above this doesn't lead to the appropriate content being displayed.
  • This incorrect link is also picked up when trying to share the article/link.
  • In terms of sharing: Sharing a link populates the message with much more text than can be supported by many of the share services, such as Twitter and its 140 char limit. When sharing a status or by email the default message includes the HTML from the original article.

These are all simple issues that should be trivially simple to identify and hopefully they are already in a bug list somewhere. If not, I can only figure it's because they're having as much difficulty hiring testers with Windows Phone experience as I know a number of other companies are.

The reality
I've only looked at a tiny part of what's possible with App Studio but what I have looked at is amongst the simplest of things that are possible in an app and even basic things like standard alignment and spacing aren't correct. This doesn't encourage me that the more complex elements and functionality are better implemented.
App studio is still a very long way off producing something that is anything but basic without further modification. But it's not all bad and still in development so further improvements should be coming.
Having such a tool is a great start in terms of having some code as a starting point for building upon, but, alas this is not all that it's being used for.
I have a feeling that this tool is seen by some within Microsoft as a quick and easy way to help boost the number of apps in the store. Unfortunately I don't think that consumers want a load of generic apps. Just filling the store with them only really helps the people who get measured on the number of apps in the store.

What the tool really needs is a guide to go with the generated xap/code with more detailed advice on how, why and where things could and should be changed to help make a high quality app. While the studio is in such a state of flux and development such documentation would be impractical though. Hopefully such a guide will be produced once App Studio gets out of beta.

If only I had the time to fix all the issues...or even just point them all out. :(


  1. I know you said a full "correction attempt" isn't reasonable, but I'd like to see a follow-up article that shows quick fixes like correcting the Panorama title, etc. for those of us interested in doing quick fix-ups to AppStudio apps. Also, consider this an official "pester" for the Live Tile post. :)

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