Alternative app stores and platform branches: Is Android too open?

by: Simon HillOctober 4, 2012

Android is continuing to dominate the worldwide smartphone market. According to the IDC, reporting on the second quarter of 2012, Android has a 68 percent market share with more than 500 million globally activated devices. A more recent comscore report just covering the U.S. puts Android market share at 52.6 percent, which marks a steady rise. Whatever way you look at it, Google’s platform is doing extremely well.

While there are obvious benefits to being in the number one spot, it also makes you the biggest target. Android is undoubtedly under attack in the marketplace, in the courtroom, and in many countries around the world. Google’s open approach with Android is often cited as a major reason for the platform’s success, but recent events beg the question of whether that openness is a double-edged sword.

Alternative app stores

This week we saw the news that Russian search engine giant, Yandex, is launching its own Android app store. It will join a growing number of alternatives to Google Play. Perhaps, the highest profile competitor so far has been the Amazon App Store, but there are quite a few others from GetJar to Slide Me to Android Pit to AppsLib to Opera Mobile App Store to AndAppStore to Handango to Baidu App Store to…well you get the picture, there are loads of them.

None of this seems to be a major threat to Google Play. With over 25 billion downloads and 675,000 apps and games it is clearly the leading destination for Android apps and games. However, is it a good thing or a bad thing for the platform? On the one hand competition is generally good for consumers (that’s the basis of capitalism after all) and so alternative Android app stores tend to offer discounts and promotions to tempt users away from Google Play. The flipside is the hassle of finding them.

It’s good to get freebies and promotional offers, but from a user point of view is it a pain to have multiple app stores on your device? Doesn’t it make app discovery harder?

For Google it surely just means that potential Android profits are lower than they otherwise would be. If you look at a huge market like China, Android’s market share is over 50 percent and growing fast with over 80 percent of Q2 2012 sales and yet Google Play doesn’t make any money there. Only free apps are offered in Google Play in China. Many alternatives have sprung up to fill the void and some developers sell apps directly. In contrast, despite piracy problems, Apple does sell premium apps in its App Store in China and it makes some profit there.

Chinese market

The fastest-growing and potentially biggest smartphone market in the world is China. The threat to Google there is not just the loss of control and revenue related to the sale of Android apps and games, there’s also the threat of branched versions of Android that aren’t compatible. The huge e-commerce company, Alibaba, has created the Aliyun OS.

Google contends that Aliyun is nothing more than a fork of Android and, in a move that surprised many, the company insisted that Open Handset Alliance partner Acer ditch the CloudMobile A800 smartphone and pointed out that it was breaking the rules of the OHA. In a statement at the time Google said:

“Compatibility is at the heart of the Android ecosystem and ensures a consistent experience for developers, manufacturers and consumers. Non-compatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem. All members of the Open Handset Alliance have committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices. This does not however, keep OHA members from participating in competing ecosystems.”

It is also important to point out that the Aliyun App Store was (and presumably still is) distributing illegal pirated copies of Android apps and games.

This ramps up Google’s feud with China and it raises a lot of questions about the future of the platform there. There are also reports about Baidu Cloud which is an Android overlay for the Chinese market. Baidu is the largest Chinese language search engine in the world, amongst many other things, and Baidu Cloud essentially rips out Google services from Android and replaces them with its own.

That in itself raises an interesting question about the difference between platform forks or branches and overlays. After all, Amazon and Barnes & Noble do the same thing with Android, to a certain extent.

Google is not Android

Maybe one of the key confusions here is that Google and Android are synonymous. Android was actually born out of the Open Handset Alliance and while Google has obviously been the senior partner and driven development, it doesn’t own the platform. Or maybe we can more accurately say that it does own Google Android but it doesn’t own offshoots that are developed out of the Android Open Source Project.

There’s actually quite a big difference between various devices on the market that are described as Android devices. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others take code from the Android Open Source Project and make their own platform from it. Those devices don’t have access to Google Play and can’t run any Android app or game, only those offered through the respective manufacturer’s stores (even although technically they probably can run any Android app or game).

If they want to use the Android trademark and access the Google Play store then device manufacturers need to pass the compatibility test.

Is this really a problem?

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure. I think it’s a problem for Google rather than for Android. The thing is, right now, there’s no debating who offers the best Android experience – it’s definitely Google. Current competitors can’t beat Google’s range of services and the user experience is second to none. I can’t vouch for that being the case in Russia or China, though. It is also possible that someone will one day offer a better Android experience than Google does.

Android’s future is bright with or without Google.

What do you think? Would love to hear some opinions on this so please post a comment.

  • hohopig

    From a consumer’s point of view, things are truly bright and been open means that we are not beholden to any one company. Because you never know with companies, even one as big, open and innovative as Google at this moment.

  • bugong

    if you can afford a decent android device, rest assure people will stick to google. i certainly will stick with the innovator any time of the day. trashy alternatives are for trashy handsets..if large companies wanna sell more device, stick with google play store.. its like buying a bmw and outfitting it with trashy accessories…

  • I’m starting to thing the open nature of Android will be very bad in the long run. We will star seeing fragmentation more on more on the markets not only on versions/resolutions. I think we my came to one point when google will not make android anymore because other OEMs will make their own browsers that might bypass google search – the main source of money for google – the reason that Android is evolving so fast. I home none of this will happen.

  • Not only the alternative app stores and platform branches, but the fact that GOOGLE don’t give a dam about stoping piracy and stealing of content may turn out to be very harmful for hard working developers loyal to android and other content creators .

    I have said it before and I think it’s worth repeating that- google and it’s darling OEMs do not give a dam about any responsibility of stopping piracy
    -1) google do not prevent pirating measures like torrent from getting in to android devices.
    2) oems give the pirates more teeth via more pirating tools like bluetooth file transfer. etcIs google expecting that people will listen to their inner “angel voice ” and stop piracy?
    Guess what,who is making fun of people who are willing to pay and are using legal download on iTunes and similar serves?IT’S GOOGLE AND IT’S DARLING OEMS!

    I looked upon myself as the most stupid person in the world because i owned an iPhone and it did not allowed to pirate content or apps,no youtube downloads, but all my friends who owned an android device can do that in a blink and without paying a penny.

    This reminds me of a saying but i believe it is not in google’s database-IN A SOCIETY WHERE EVERYONE IS CIVILISED WE DONOT NEED A POLICE STATION BUT OURS IS NOT SO LUCKY

    • Vboom

      I work for an app development company in Sydney Australia.
      I don’t know why you lord piracy of apps as such a pro to your system.
      If iOS imposes stricter security and yields more money for developers then we will focus on providing better apps for that platform.
      Android has a much larger base so we don’t feel the pinch as much now but down the track i’m sure we will as people become more aware of pirating techniques.
      Are the advantages of saving 99c on an app really worth the eventual disadvantage of not having the most premium version?

      • tBs_Battousai

        As a developer do you know what’s happening regarding the play store encrypting paid apps on jelly bean and later handsets?

        • Vboom

          Sorry about the late reply mate
          If I am honest I work in the finance department of this company so I am short on details.
          My earlier comment was basically just what I have spoken about with the guys on the floor.
          Ill talk to the boys and see if I can get any info for you

  • Kassim

    Personally, I don’t like the proliferation in different configurations of Android devices.

    3″, 3.2″, 3.5″, 3.7″, 4″, 4.25″, 4.3″, single core, dual core, 2+1
    core, 800×480, 960×540, 1280×720, 1280×768, 1280×800…and so on and so forth – almost all in any number of combinations.

    “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations” isn’t conducive to having the best (<–keyword
    there) quality 'Android experience' – i.e. the OS and it's apps.

    Developing software for the lowest common denominator – where the 'lcd' is rubbish compared to the best – just because it's the most used with no hope of that changing soon is not in the interest of quality…