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Google rewarms Android Market, still half baked next to iPhone App Store

Despite the delivery of a variety of new and improved smartphone models, the Android experience is still straggling behind Apple's iPhone, particularly in the area of its App Store.

To address the shortcomings of Android Market, Google has announced plans to roll out a new store client app for all smartphones running Android OS 1.6 or higher. The new version of the store plans to make it easier to discover software and facilitate sales.

The new store uses a Cover Flow-like browsable control for flipping through app icons (shown below), and plans to add new categories for popular types of content, including Live Wallpapers and Widgets, which make up a large portion of the Android app catalog.

Also like Apple's App Store, Android Market app listings will now present a variety of information about the apps on a single page and include links to related content. Google's update adds, "we’re also introducing application content rating to provide users with more information about applications they are interested in."

Android Market is also changing its policy on software returns, which has long been a thorn in the side of developers trying to release commercial products, rather than just the ad supported titles that Google favors. Instead of allowing users to instantly refund any purchase made within 24 hours, buyers will now only have 15 minutes to decide they don't want an app.

To address the hardware fragmentation issues inherent in running Android apps across a variety of different hardware designs, Google also announced plans to "make it easier for developers to distribute and manage their products" by introducing "support for device targeting based on screen sizes and densities, as well as on GL texture compression formats."

App size restrictions

Finally, in order to make it possible for developers to offer more interesting games, Google will be relaxing its limit on app files sizes sold through Android Market to 50MB, up from a previous limit of 25MB. Some Android developers skirt this limitation by delivering a tiny app that can download resources (such as music and graphics) to the phone after purchase.

Apple's limit for iOS app downloads is 40 times larger. Many games already weigh in at 125MB (Sega's early SuperMonkey Ball from 2008), 150-300MB (including titles such as Firemint's Real Racing HD and Gameloft's Modern Combat: Sandstorm) or even more than 300MB, such as latest Infinity Blade. TomTom's iOS GPS app, which includes maps for the US and Canada, is nearly 2GB, the limit Apple has established for iOS titles.

Apple can accommodate large software sizes because iOS apps don't exclusively rely upon over the air installation as Android Market apps do. While mobile providers can limit the download size of apps that are delivered over the mobile network (typically set at around 20MB), Apple allows users to get big apps from iTunes directly via WiFi or by syncing with iTunes. Google offers no desktop application version of Android Market, nor even a web version that supports downloads. This results in more difficult development and distribution for companies trying to port apps to Android.

Gaming on Android

None of the large games previously mentioned for the iOS are available via Android Market (although there are unauthorized "themes" available in Android Market named "Super Monkey Ball" and "Modern Combat." Of the top iOS apps listed by Apple for 2010, only three are available for Android: "Angry Birds," "Fruit Ninja" and "Doodle Jump," although you can download a "Plants vs Zombies" or "Cut the Rope" theme and find knockoff adware pretending to be the App Store's popular "Hipstamatic" photography app.

Last year, gaming legend John Carmack told CNBC that while he was excited about the prospects of the iPhone, "I have mixed feelings about Android. I've got a warm feeling about the open source model, but a lot of the things that make Linux not-so-wonderful seem to be there in Android. On the iPhone, you know everyone on that device [has the same functionality and hardware], while on Android, you’re across the board on a number of different things."

Carmack added, "the [Android] marketplace is also apparently not well handled. And from what I hear, nobody’s making a lot of money on these [Android titles].” Ten days ago, Carmack reiterated his view of the Android platform in interview with Ars Technica, where he said, "The official word here is that we are definitely going to get some games compiled on the Android platform, but we are not yet committed to selling something on the Marketplace. Because I'm honestly still a little scared of the support burden and the effort that it's going to take for our products, which are very graphics-intensive."

Carmack explained that "the iOS platform has really been a pleasure to work on compared to all of the... half of the reason for us ditching the old feature phones was that it was so much more pleasant to develop for iOS. And I fear that we would be slipping back into some of that quagmire on the Android side of things. […] There's a lot of things that happen automagically for us on iOS that we'll have to deal with particularly on the Android space. And that's not a lot of work that's going to be huge heaps of fun to do. It's going to be dreary, tedious work that I would certainly push on somebody else personally, but I'm not sure that even as a company it's something that we want to be involved in."

On page 2 of 2: Market mismanagement on Android, Theft and advertising, Situation unlikely to change dramatically

Market mismanagement on Android

This summer, Jon Lech Johansen (aka DVD Jon), the developer of DoubleTwist, a desktop Mac and Windows app that provides Android with a third party option for media sync and desktop Android Market access resembling Apple's iTunes, complained about "Google's mismanagement of the Android Market," noting that "one should not need a PhD in Computer Science to use a smartphone," and that "Google does far too little curation of the Android Market."

Johansen added that, "unlike Apple’s App Store, the Android Market has few high quality apps. A study by Larva Labs (the developers of the excellent Slidescreen app) estimates that Apple has paid out 50 times more money to developers than Google has. While the Android Market is available in 46 countries, developers can only offer paid apps in 13 countries." Google has since expanded the number of countries where developers can sell paid apps to 32, out of 44 total (12 only support free distribution). Apple supports App Store sales in 90 countries.

"In addition," Johansen wrote, "the price for foreign apps is not displayed in the user’s local currency and developers do not have the option of customizing pricing by country. To make matters worse, you can’t pay for foreign apps using your Amex card or carrier billing. There’s also no support for in-app payments and changelogs (to communicate app changes)."

Johansen also complained of "spam ringtone apps (which are clearly infringing copyright) [that] are currently cluttering the top ranks of the Multimedia category. I was not surprised to find that they were being monetized through Google Ads," while also pointing at other examples showing that "trademark and copyright infringement is widespread in the Android Market," including apps pretending to be iTunes and paid themes that use Disney characters (or artwork from third party games, as noted above.) "it’s time for Google to clean up the house," Johansen wrote.

Six months later, none of the fake apps or infringing themes Johansen depicted in his blog posting have been removed from the Android Market catalog by Google.

fakes and theft in Android Market

Theft and advertising

This fall, a report noted that the developer of Radiant, an Android top ten game title, had found 97 percent of players in Asia were using an illegal copy, 70 percent in Europe, and 43 percent in North America. The game was priced at just $2.40, but the majority of Android users found it more attractive to steal the game than support the developer's efforts by buying it legitimately.

Despite figures showing that Android smartphones are selling in volumes that now exceed Apple's iPhone, the fractionalization of the Android platform (which attempts to reach a much wider range of hardware performance, with different versions of the core operating system installed across devices), the primary business model Google promotes for Android apps is not paid apps, but in game advertising, which Google stands to benefits from as the largest mobile advertiser targeting the platform.

Proportionally, more than twice as many apps are distributed for free and supported by ads than any other mobile platform, according to Distimo.

App Stores

Situation unlikely to change dramatically

"Angry Birds" developer Rovio brought its title to Android as an free ad-based title, noting "that is the Google way," in a tweet. Google's Android Market has also come under assault from top Android developers for sloppy policies regarding app approval, poor security for users' data and allowing developers to collect inappropriate information from users without their consent.

Building an iTunes-like desktop sync application for Android and policing its software catalog would require Google to make significant investments in the platform. However, Google employees have noted that the company sees web apps as the future, rather than a native app platform like that built by Apple, or the new mobile platforms being released, including Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, and HP's webOS, acquired from Palm.

Google's delayed Chrome OS pursues web apps exclusively, and already provides a web-based market for apps, closely patterned after Apple's iTunes App Store.