Android Market - Google's Answer to AppStore?

Google recently announced on their blog how they intend to promote Apps for the Android operating system. The "store" will be referred to as the "Android Market" which will be more of a repository, or archive, of applications available for the platform. They did not spell out how commerce will be accomplished--just that free apps (and maybe free demos?) will expect support for now, with more decisions to be made later. This news is welcomed by developers who are frustrated with the semi-closed nature of the AppStore, but does pose some critical issues in its deployment. In this post, I will compare and contrast some of the positives and negatives of the Android Market (as it has been announced), the AppStore, and the current existing smartphone application distribution system.

The Android Market has a lot of positives:

1) Developers do not need to pay $99 to be listed on the store, plus Google does not restrict or limit developers from participating.
2) Since the developer self-uploads, the applications can be released and updated in real-time with no long approval queues.
3) There will be an icon on the Android-based phones so that users can access the 'market' directly from device, getting apps directly in front of all customers.
4) The 'marketplace' will be a central location for finding all available applications of those who wish to be listed.
5) Customer reviews will be included.
6) Demo versions will be allowed--the shareware model can be used.
7) If there is an online desktop store (like iTunes desktop), it will most likely be accessible from a regular browser, so can be used from ANY computer. (Right now I can't browse the iTunes store from my Linux computer.)

And then there are negatives or unanswered questions:

1) How will developers "sell" their paid apps?
No mention was made of how this will be accomplished in a central location. Developers may be able to sell directly via their own websites, but for some smaller or novice developers, with no established ecommerce solution in place, this omission will make selling more difficult. Users will also have to visit each developer's ecommerce site separately and make individual purchases. (Imagine a bookstore where you browse in one location, but have to buy each book at each author's register or website. Some customers won't mind, but others will be turned off.) The impulse buy will be limited; the variety of purchasing experiences will most likely reduce customer satisfaction; and the shareware model, despite being liked by users, would tend to produce less sales for developers (a 25% sales-to-download ratio is common). Therefore, overall application sales could be lower, making the platform being less attractive to developers.

The current Palm/Windows Mobile ESD's (Electronic Software Distributors) could offer novice developers an ecommerce solution, which on the surface may not be bad, but if this grows too much, the ESD sites may grow to be THE place to buy Android software, and their current commission structures, price fixing requirements, and other tactics are not palatable to many developers. The commissions commanded (50-70% of the software price) severely limit the amount of profit an individual developer can earn. (FWIW, Mobihand is the most developer-friendly and has the lowest commissions.) These commissions are bad enough with higher-priced software, but if Android apps are priced like the AppStore, these commissions for ecommerce could also inhibit the attractiveness of the platform to developers.

2) What will happen over time? As the archive increases in volume, who will weed out the abandonware? Currently, the AppStore solution of a $99 'membership fee' will allow Apple to eliminate apps where the developer is no longer interested in listing. This fact will effectively keep the store a bit more tidy in the long run. Palm and Windows Mobile applications have had a history of free download sites or software archives. Not only are many of these sites loaded with outdated, unsupported titles, making it difficult to find software, but some of these sites themselves have been abandoned, as far as management of them goes. Even the ESD's have had trouble trimming down the outdated and abandoned apps.

3) How will the download experience be? How will apps be updated? How will they be backed up?
Right now the AppStore uses iTunes to take care of this rather seamlessly. Palm used the Palm Desktop to keep things backed up. However, the transfer of apps from the download to the Palm Desktop to the device leave much to be desired. We have many non-technical customers who just gave up (and probably more who didn't contact us about it). The AppStore solved a lot of problems for the customer experience, which has plagued developers' customer help desks for years. Will the Android Market be an improvement to the current smartphone app experience or just more of the same? Making things easy for customers is key to a successful marketplace for everyone.

4) How will the Registration process be accomplished?
If the Android Marketplace allows for only demo downloads (and not ecommerce) then each developer will need to set up their own copy protection scheme and registration key delivery. Developers may prefer the control this allows, but the customer experience will again be varied, especially on the registration key delivery, or fulfillment process. The AppStore does not really allow for the shareware demo model, which is frustrating for both developers and customers, but if there is no streamlined way on the Android Market to deliver a registration key code for an application, this factor may also limit actual sales. Current commission-hungry ESD's of the Palm/Windows Mobile smartphone applications have finally gotten decent delivery processes in place for the developers (real time fulfillment methods), which are welcomed by both users and developers. The past email-delivery had been increasingly frustrating with the ever increasing spam. Emails were either filtered, ignored, or not even delivered. High customer service volume was due mainly to this delivery/fulfillment issue alone.

Here's a quick comparison of the marketplaces:

Platform App Distribution Comparisons

It will be interesting to watch how the Android Market evolves. To succeed with the more open format, they will need to offer a common (optional) ecommerce solution, with an easy fulfillment method, at a minimum. A good model to follow for the ecommerce is Amazon, where customers can buy all the products from many suppliers in one shopping cart and one checkout. HTTP POST autofulfillment is the preferred method for developers because the developer hosts the registration keys. Developers will heartily welcome the centralized on-device Market and the ability to control what and when they upload to the site. Customers will welcome the ability to get demos (the shareware model) and the central location for browsing.

The Android Market must also be careful to not become overcrowded with abandonware and plan for great navigation of the site, such as sub-categories, search, and viewing alternatives (by date, by rating, etc.). The Market must implement measures to prevent abuse that has been present in past mobile software archives (bogus updates for better placement, multiple listings of the same apps, for example) and find ways to highlight fresh content. Otherwise, it could become just another dated, unnavigable, software listing site that is populated by blocks of Adwords.