Is Anyone Home at the Android Market or Has Google Gone Fishin'?

As an iPhone user for two and a half years who switched to the Nexus One back in January, I think I have a decent amount of end user perspective on Google’s Android Market. Essentially, it needs work. And while — as demonstrated by Vic Gundrota at the Google I/O event — a web-based Market will eventually shoot apps over the air to your device, why, in the meantime, have applications started to disappear from users’ phones?

Developers updating their current titles have been finding that their software subsequently stops appearing on particular phone models. One Google support thread uncovered by ReadWriteWeb shows this issue reported on June 3 and only just responded to today by a Google representative — in the fast-paced software market for mobiles, that five days had to feel like five weeks from a developer standpoint. And to make matters worse, this isn’t the first time such an issue has cropped up.

Big in Japan, the developers behind the popular ShopSavvy Android application, pointed out a similar issue on their blog last year, saying: “This is worrisome, because most users won’t even realize that ShopSavvy is missing because they aren’t looking for it. How many downloads are we missing? No one knows.” Ironically, ShopSavvy was one of the 10 winners in Google’s own original Android developer challenge — while all developers should be important to Google, surely one of those that helped launch the Android app craze should have Google’s ear. And yet, the problem continues today, even after Google told Big In Japan that the issue would be resolved with Android 2.1.

While I’m not a developer, I’m going to go out on a limb with the idea that this issue is related to Google’s Android fragmentation problem, although some at Google call it a “compatibility” issue. At last check, Android handset usage was equally split between Android 1.5, 1.6 and 2.x. Each new version of Android brings potential API changes and while it’s up to developers to adjust their apps for such changes, Google is the ultimate storefront manager as far as the end users are concerned. As such, Google should be on top of these issues as they happen — if not planning to avoid them beforehand — instead of waiting five days to acknowledge such problems.

Near as I can tell, the very requirements Google has in place to avoid device compatibility issues are related to the current problem of updated apps magically disappearing. Several developers are removing permissions such as RECORD_AUDIO and CALL_PHONE — once they do so and the upload their app, it appears in the Android Market for devices that previously couldn’t find it. It’s a shame that developers are taking it upon themselves to work around the issue, but given the fact that missing apps can’t generate sales, I don’t blame them.

The Google support thread uncovered by RRW shows that the most recent problem has been resolved, and Google says a patch has resolved the immediate issue. So for the moment, it appears that Android developers are back on track, as are customers of their wares in the Android Market. The question now is: How long before the next issue and will anyone at Google notice?

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Google’s Mobile Strategy: Understanding the Nexus One

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