Editorial: Build awesome Windows Phone apps with no coding...and other lies

Being a developer is tough, and every developer will agree.  If they don't, they're in denial. We have long hours, we get no sleep, we spend hours tweaking things that 90% of users will never notice (much like designers), and often get no recognition for any of this.  You don't just wake up one day and are suddenly a coder, it takes work.

I used to lecture Microsoft technologies at a University and the number one reason students gave as to why they were studying programming was: "I heard there was lots of money in it". Surprisingly, those were the same people that now work at McDonalds (and make amazing burgers I might add!).  And as far as I can work out, it's also these types of people that make 5 minute apps.

There are lots of generalizations in this post, so I apologize if you get offended.

Back near the beginning of Windows Phone's life a service called AppMakr added support for WP7.  This service allowed a user to create an app in a few clicks with absolutely no coding, and no prior knowledge of the platform.  This sounds great in theory. But in practice, it just produces thousands of cloned apps that each look at an RSS feed and spit out the result.  I had presumed that one of the Microsoft blogs had posted an example RSS reader and people hadn't bothered to change anything bar the URL it looks at.  I was wrong, and later discovered the source.  This all wouldn't be too bad if the app that was generated was mildly attractive, but the results are pretty shocking (for the most part).

For an example of one of these apps, look no further than "wpcentral".  No, not our official app, but this one.

Okay, so looking past the garish color scheme, it is still a really horrid app to use.  It adds nothing to the mobile site.  In fact, our mobile site has a comment system, which the app doesn't.  Plus, it reflects badly on WPCentral because some unlucky sod has no-doubt downloaded this by mistake.

This isn't just a problem for us though, it's just a good example.  Head over to the marketplace and search for any reputable news site and there will be at least one (but usually multiple) of these "RSS Reader" crapps.

Here are some examples, for your enjoyment!CNNBBCCNETGizmodoEngadget

One particular gem, pointed out by Dan, is the fine developer named "rrrrgarg".  He/she has spent countless seconds generating 53 unique and exciting apps for Windows Phone users to enjoy.  And they must know how much we hate diversity, because almost all of those point to just 3 particular outlets.  There are 21 BBC apps, 20 CNN apps, and 10 Virginia Tech apps.  Hey, on the bright side, most of them are made with probably the least horrible of all the crapp generators, Follow My Feed.

Scumbag spammer or not, with that many apps, they much be making an absolute killing with all the adverts being served!  Well, except that they're not.  If I look at one of my apps that has a pretty terrible user-to-review ratio (meaning that lots of users only equals a few reviews) - it show that per 100 downloads, it only gets one review.  Now counting up the reviews from rrrrgarg's apps, and then multiplying that with 100 we can see they have probably had about 100 users.  Considering that serving 1000 adverts can net you less than a single dollar sometimes, it looks like this isn't such a great money making scheme after all.

Keep in mind that the above is probably as inaccurate as saying that Google never strays from their motto.  One problem is that for my App I am using the number of reviews from all marketplace regions (not just US), but not for rrrrgarg's.  So although it's not scientific, I think you get the gist.

Besides Follow My Feed, there are other generators that seem popular.  One of the oldest ones is AppMakr - and this is what the unofficial WPCentral app was made with.  To get a full understanding of what creating an app entails, checkout the following video:

Despite the confusing UI of AppMakr, it takes just a minute or two to make something marketplace ready.  Please note that I said marketplace ready, not marketplace worthy.

Next up is Conduit.  When I saw this particular name pop-up recently I was especially excited.  No, not because I'm lazy, but because I thought it may be a version of The Conduit for WP7, which was a surprisingly enjoyable Wii game.  Alas, it was all a conspiracy (see what I did there?).

The UI of Conduit is a little better than AppMakr, and doesn't look like a Web 1.0 yahoo page, but it's still rather confusing.  Oh, and there were some glaring problems which made me want to smash my beautiful LCD, like it randomly refreshing the page half-way through and losing all progress.  And when I needed to login (yes, I had registered and activated my account beforehand) to save, it went into an endless cycle of hate.  I did eventually get it to save, but only after much gnashing of teeth.  I guess that could actually count as a point in Conduit's favor - I have been looking for a reason to use the word gnashing in an article.

Here is the video of my Conduit experience:

Now before the pitchforks come out, and we get nasty emails from the aforementioned companies let me point out that these services do actually have a worthy place in life.  There is a small percent of people that need a simple app for their website, but do not have the resources or knowledge to get one made or to make one themselves.  These are the people that own smaller low-income websites.  And because they have an invested interest in the app (because it reflects on their site), they will take care in generating it.  With enough time put into Conduit or Follow My Feed, it would actually be possibly to make a semi-descent app.  Of course it wont compare to a lovingly hand-crafted app, but at least it won't count as spam.

But then you get the dark side of the story.  And the thing that still puzzles me is WHY.  Why do these people feel the need to spam the marketplace?  If there was a chance in hell of them making money then I would understand it, but for the 99%, I just don't see how that is possible.  It's actually surprising how few of these apps are paid.  If a person is scummy enough to create 53 cloned spam apps, then I would expect that they are scummy enough to also charge for the app and have no trial - to sucker in a few innocent marketplace browsers.

So is there a solution?  YES!  If you are the owner of a site that has a bunch of illegitimate apps trying to make money off your name, then report it to Microsoft.  There is a small chance that claiming copyright on your brand can get these scumbags out.  And in an ideal world, their AppHub accounts would be disabled and tossed into Mount Doom.  Although, due to geographic issues, I don't see this happening.

To close, let me reiterate:  It is not that these services are terrible.  They provide something that a few people may find really useful, and may help some small-business owners to get their business into the mobile space.  It isn't them that's the problem, it's the pesky people that think it's alright to create reams of crappy RSS reader apps for websites that they are not affiliated with.  Although, I guess it needs to be said that if these services weren't around, there would be no problem at all.  It also isn't Microsoft's fault.  There is no way that they could create certification requirements that would be able to weed out the spam from the bacon. This isn't just a problem on the Windows Phone Marketplace either - it's every mobile platform.  Oh, and don't even get me started on e-book apps...

If you are a legit business owner that is looking to get into the mobile space, then I wish you the best of luck.  If you are looking to create a better experience than these can provide, then the best places to start are our forums and create.msdn.com.  Microsoft has made it really easy to get going, and the tools are free and fantastic.  If you are a scumbag spammer (as Dan puts it), my pitchfork is looking for you.

EDIT: One of our users, whatisvisceral, has pointed out a developer by the name of "Scace". They have managed to publish 6 individual apps, all of which do nothing but display a single color on the screen. My mind is blown.

WC Staff