Thunkable Forks MIT App Inventor
Written by Lucy Black   
Sunday, 06 March 2016

Two of the contributors to the App Inventor open source project have secured $120,000 seed funding from YC to launch a commercial version called Thunkable. 

App Inventor, in case you have missed it, is the easiest way to create Android apps. It originated at Google when MIT's Hal Abelson was there on a sabbatical and decided that Android would be a good target for an educational language. He took the Scratch graphical block programming language and customized it to produce Android apps.

As we reported when it was first demoed to the world in 2010, see Easy Android Apps, using App Inventor, all you had to do to create an app was to drag some UI controls onto a surface and then create the program logic by dragging blocks. It was, and is, a very simple task and very suited to getting beginners to program something impressive. 




Abelson might have been trying to create an educational tool, but App Inventor was also a great prototyping tool that could be used to produce usable finished apps. Why Google didn't notice that it had a killer development tool in its lap is difficult to comprehend, but instead of using it to promote Android in 2011, as part of its closure of Google Labs they handed it over to MIT where it has been under development since as an open source project.

That development has been fairly slow compared to what Google might have done with the "product" but App Inventor 2 is a very popular and very polished product. It does lack some features that are desirable in if you are planning to use it as a production tool but many of these are said to be on the way. 

Two former student contributors to the project, Arun Saigal (CEO) and WeiHua Li (CTO),  have just launched Thunkable with a chunk of seed money to try and push App Inventor in the direction of being more suitable for the task of creating production quality apps. Thunkable will be free to use for the time being but there are plans to charge for premium features and support. Thunkable's code isn't going to be open source. As MIT App Inventor is under a permissive Apache 2.0 licence this is perfectly possible. 

So far the Thunkable team has added support for Google Maps and Material Design. Useful but not revolutionary. It also claims to be working on an iOS version, something made possible by the open sourcing of Apple's Swift language. This sounds like a big task and one that might well take more than the seed capital they have. 

Unfortunately a it seems to be all too easy to misunderstand the situation. For example, in a Reddit post Arun Saigal says:

"We've been working on this tool at MIT and Google for the past few years as an open source project called MIT App Inventor, and we decided to make a product (Thunkable) around it to better support our users."

You can see that this might well be taken to mean that they were the two leading, or even the only devs, working on the project. They were both involved with the project in the period leading up to the launch of App Inventor 2 in 2013 and at the moment WeiHua Li is listed on App Inventor's GitHub site as 15th most active contributor with 11 commits compared to Abelson's 166 and Jeff Schiller's 366 commits. 

There is also the unfortunate use of App Inventor statistics at the bottom of the Thunkable web page which seems to suggest that Thunkable has over 4 million users. Just because its a fork doesn't mean it has it can claim all the the users of the original project. 

Finally we come to the future of App Inventor. A recent, ??widely duplicated, TechCrunch article on Thunkable says:

"What will happen to MIT’s App Inventor? It’s not entirely clear at this point, but it looks like development on that project may well wind down in future, with Thunkable picking up the baton."

However the most recent App Inventor blog post by Hal Abelson says:

"An App Inventor company: We’re starting to think about MIT’s long-term ability to continue to grow such a major global service. Some of the ideas floated include more active fundraising or even charging for some categories of use."

Not quite throwing in the towel just yet. 

It is difficult to know how many of the current App Inventor users will migrate to Thunkable - I guess it all depends on how well Thunkable implements new, must-have features and how underfunded the MIT project becomes. 

It's OK to fork code, that's encouraged as part of the open source ethos as long as it remains open source. However the idea of taking over the user base of an established, well supported and thriving project with the objective of turning it into a commercial concern seems to me to be an altogether a different proposition. Don't even  thunk it. 




More Information


TechCrunch: MIT spin-out Thunkable hopes its drag-and-drop app builder can be a money-spinner too

MIT App Inventor Update February 25, 2016

Related Articles

Easy Android Apps

Google drops App Inventor

App Inventor Returns to MIT

App Inventor Version 2 - Easy Android Apps 

Getting started with MIT App Inventor 2 

Google Blockly - A Graphical Language with a Difference


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