Have you ever had an idea for a very simple smartphone app, one that just does something helpful? One that you can easily describe, or daydream, but can't quite put into code?
Maybe this app sends someone important a text when your battery level gets very low. Or it automatically turns your phone volume up and data connection off when you're connected to your car stereo. Perhaps you've seen something like your daydream app in the Play Store for Android apps, but it's a bit too much, or too much money, for the simple thing you want to do.
There is, in fact, a way to make simple one-purpose apps for Android devices, and I will detail it here. It requires a good bit of tinkering, but it does not require any coding skills. The apps you will make, too, can be given to other people to install on their own phones, and you sign them, so people know it's actually you who made these little bundles of usefulness. If you can think of an action or series of actions that almost any Android device can do -- get the location, call or text this number, change a setting, pop up an alert with some information -- then you can turn it into an app.
I know this because I made an Android app that unlocks (via text message) the door at the coworking space I co-founded, and a half-dozen people are using it. Right after that, I made an app that snaps a picture of my dog and immediately emails it to my wife.
I have many friends and former professors who can testify that I don't know what I'm doing when it comes to writing usable, deployable, easy to understand code. But I was eager to avoid texting the same number the same text over and over. And my dog is pretty adorable.
Ready? Let's get started.
What You'll Need
- A working Android device, one that can do everything you want your app to do (call, text, connect via Bluetooth, etc.)
- General knowledge of your Android device's settings and capabilities
- Two Android apps installed on that device:
- The $3 Tasker. If you like to tinker with things generally, or fix up your Android device specifically, it's very much worth the 12 quarters.
- Tasker App Factory, which is free and powers the app-bundling part of the process.
- A minimum of 30 minutes, give or take, all at once or stolen in bits. My app example and your first app may take far less, but you will want to mess around and fine-tune.
Getting Started: Setting Up a Tasker Task
Install Tasker on your device, then tap through—um, I mean _read_—the disclaimer, overview, and any other welcome screens that pop up. You'll arrive at a notably blank main screen that has three categories you can tap or slide between: Profiles, Tasks, and Scenes. Tap or slide over to Tasks.
Now is when you might think about what this app of yours should really do. If you don't have a preconceived notion of what your app should do, you might peruse the list of possibilities on Tasker's home page. Or, if you're like me, you might tap on ahead into Tasker and explore what's there.
Tap the "+" button at the bottom of of the "Tasks" screen, and you will be asked to name your Task. Now, a Task is really just a sequence of actions that your Android device will perform. Name your Task after the job you're planning to have it perform: "Curfew Notifier," "Open Cowork," "My Card Mode," that sort of thing.
In my case, I'm working on an app that I would, in some alternate universe, distribute to my sweet but forgetful and precocious teenage daughters. They are always testing the limits of the 10 p.m. curfew I gave them, those fictional teens. We have discussed this, and I have made a concession: if they believe they will be later than 10 p.m. heading home, it is their duty to use this app to let me know where they are, and also assure me that their battery is not about to die (so as to defeat related excuses).
I name my Task "Curfew Notifier" and arrive at yet another very empty screen, and tap "+" again to add an Action.
The Action Possibilities
Whoa, all those buttons. They are all the things you might ask Tasker to have your phone do. Most of them are semi-obvious, but some are a bit broad. A quick primer on the possibilities:
- Alert: Make your phone show a notification, a pop-up screen, vibrate, or flash its camera LED
- App: Open an app on your phone, kill an app, open a Maps location, add a Calendar item, or set an alarm (weird list, eh?)
- Audio: Change the volume on alarms, Bluetooth, calls, media, notifications, ringers, or change the silent/vibrate modes.
- Display: Change the brightness, turn on car mode, lock the screen, change the wallpaper, lock the phone.
- File: Move/copy/delete/open files in the phone's storage, or read text out loud from a file (oh, the possibilities)
- Image: Crop, flip, load, resize, rotate, or save a picture image.
- Input: Ask for text, button pushes, or voice input (generally between other actions)
- Media: Play/skip/stop music, record audio, or take a photo.
- Misc.: Tweak CPU settings (please be careful), grab the phone location, reboot the phone, say something out loud, and other quirky things.
- Net: Change settings for Bluetooth, auto-sync, mobile data, Wi-Fi, tethering, and also compose emails (and do some nerdy HTML Post/Get stuff).
- Phone: Call or hang up, send a text message or MMS.
- Plugin: If you have other apps that can work with Tasker, their options are in here.
- Scene: Create a visual dialog or screen with many, many options.
- Settings: Open or change nearly any setting on your phone.
- Task: Set up programming-style options in this task: make it wait, look for "if" conditions, halt, etc.
- Tasker: Change the status of other Tasks and Tasker's own home screen widget.
- Variables: If you're getting nerdy with your Task, you can get really, really nerdy with the variables you're using and setting up in here.
- Zoom: Separate app you can install to make "freeform widgets."
- 3rd Party: A collection of apps that can be triggered by Tasker. Among them: BeyondPod (podcast listener), WidgetLocker (lock screen alternative), and TeslaLED (flashlight app)
Anything catch your fancy in there? Me, I think I found the pieces of my app in there. Follow along as I grab them.