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3 tools to help communications pros kickstart ideas for Web and mobile apps

Screenshot of Google App Inventor interface

If you work in public relations or marketing, you don’t need me to rattle off the growing array of digital platforms available as possible destinations for your message. You’re well aware of the rise of the iPad and the Android mobile operating system, which showed growth of nearly 900 percent in 2010. But do you know where to start when it comes to creating a good experience on these platforms that furthers your business goals?

Now before I venture too far out on the bridge between business and technology, let me establish my goal here: to introduce you to tools you can use to explore what’s possible in the development of apps for the Web and mobile devices without writing a line of software code. (Don’t worry, I can’t write a line of code either.)

I’ll leave it to Mitch Joel to argue that companies need “ marketing technologists” to bring marketing ideas to digital fruition. I’ll leave it to Douglas Rushkoff to argue that we technological neophytes must choose whether to “ Program or Be Programmed“. And I’ll leave it to Steve Rubel to point out that marketers need to familiarize themselves with the wealth of data available for them to analyze and repurpose from the proliferation of application programming interfaces (APIs).

These are all great points, but this post is about pointing you toward fun, easy-to-use, visual programming tools to kickstart your ideas for bringing your message to new corners of the digital world.

1. Google App Inventor. Launched last summer, this tool lets you drag and drop puzzle pieces representing bits of code that fit together to create mobile apps for the Android operating system. Your apps can integrate phone hardware and software features like the address book, camera, photo galleries, GPS navigation and even accelerometers or motion sensors. There’s even a Google group, App Inventor Coffee Shop, where users collaborate and share components of the apps they’ve built for you to reuse. If you’re looking to launch an Android app, you will almost certainly want to take your idea to a professional developer rather than publish what you’ve built in the Android Market yourself. But you’ll have a much better sense of what’s possible after a few hours playing with this tool. Who knows, maybe you’ll top the creative writing student who was featured in Wired magazine for his creation of an app that auto-replies to text messages received while you’re driving.

2 and 3. Kodu and Scratch. Kodu is a visual programming language for building games on Microsoft Xbox. Having just surpassed 30 million users, Xbox Live, the mutliplayer gaming community and digital media delivery platform, has become an enclave of the digital universe that commands a growing level of mindshare. Kodu allows you to create characters and terrain either using an Xbox 360 or a PC. Even if you’re not interested in building Xbox games, it’s a fun way to play with visual ideas. Scratch, an MIT project, is a similar platform for creating Web-based games.

If this all seems like kid stuff to you, you might want to investigate the world of “serious games“, the kind that help us think through real-world problems (try the New York Times’ “You Fix the Budget” puzzle). Events like last month’s Gamification Summit in San Francisco are shedding light on the opportunity to drive online engagement through gaming.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Check out Wikipedia’s excellent list of visual programming languages to find a tool that best suits your needs. Have fun!

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