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4 Ways Google Can Clean Up the Android Market

As far as shopping experiences go, Google’s Android Market (s aapl) is akin to a farmers market, with different wares around every corner and in no particular order. And it’s not much better for developers — Jon Lech Johansen, aka DVD Jon, rightly suggests, “[I]t’s time for Google to clean up the house.” But without exercising a control process around application approval like Apple does — a practice that Apple has been criticized for in the past — Google has to proceed carefully, lest it lose what many feel is a key advantage over Apple: openness.

Johansen shares a sad but accurate example of what I call “apps gone wild”: A number of free ringtone app screenshots are reportedly monetized by Google Ad revenues, but while the ringtones don’t appear to be legally licensed, without an approval process, Google allows them to exist, thereby making it appear that it’s acceptable to take and resell someone else’s property. I’m not insinuating that Google actively condones such actions — I personally don’t think it does — but the company has no mechanism in place to prevent them. Or does it?

Google could exercise the remote kill switch, just as it did last week to remove two potentially malicious apps from Android devices. But if the free ringtone applications pointed out by Johansen are any indication of what shouldn’t be in the Android Market, there’s probably too many apps to remotely pull out. Still, a full review of the 65,000 applications available in the Market and some subsequent spring cleaning is in order.

After that, it’s all about maintenance. While there will always be spammy apps, fart titles and other time-wasters that add little to no value, at the bare minimum, Google needs to make sure that no software titles infringe upon the rights of content creators. The software review process needn’t go as far as Apple’s, which has rejected applications that replicate core functionality of iOS4.

One method to improve the customer experience without completely controlling the Market is for Google to better manage application permissions. Today, every potential download shows a detailed list of what phone features the software title has access to, which is confusing to many consumers. I see the need for the permission warnings, but only because there’s no centralized review process — essentially, Google has moved the process down to the user level, and most users don’t want to be bothered with it.

I know that I’m not reading all of the permissions these days and I suspect many others are skipping them, too. A review for malicious intent at the store level is worth considering if Google wants to improve the Market experience. Perhaps devs should be asked why a music app requires access to the phone’s contact database, for example? The answer is likely that it’s to share information on what tunes you’re listening to, but it’s worth asking the question all the same.

After the store shelves are winnowed down and polished up, it’s time to adjust the aisles. It boggles my mind that the leader in search offers a poor search experience for Google’s Android Market. When I spell a search term incorrectly or I’m unsure of the proper search term to use, the Market either returns terrible results or none at all. When was the last time that you did a web search on Google and came up empty? Granted, my misspelling of “Slingbox” is my own fault, but at least on the web, Google is kind enough to say “Did you mean Slingbox?” when I fat finger my search. With Android 2.2, I’m just now seeing the same “smarts” that Google’s web search offers, which should get pushed down to all Android devices, regardless of version.

I shouldn’t overlook Google’s recent efforts to improve the Market — Android 2.2 now supports application auto-upgrading and at last month’s Google I/O event, Vic Gundotra previewed Google’s upcoming web-based Market, which should address some of the on-device shortcomings. Users can buy apps from the web store, and if they’re signed in to Google, purchased apps will be pushed directly over the air to their Android handsets.

From a customer service and usability standpoint, these are positive steps forward, but if the store is still a mess, the benefits will be muted. And when you’re gaining 160,000 new customers to your storefront daily, you don’t want a sloppy store.

Related GigaOM Pro Content:

34 Responses to “4 Ways Google Can Clean Up the Android Market”

  1. Nobody has the capabilities to meaningfully review applications for “malicious intent”. Apple certainly isn’t doing that. Apple and Google are doing the same thing: if there are complaints, they remove the app.

    The reason Android shows you these permissions is because they can actually support them; iOS doesn’t even have a meaningful permission system. With iOS, you’re completely at the mercy of the app vendor.

  2. I think it would be a good idea for Google to create a screening process much like Apple has. The only difference is that it would be optional, instead of required. After completion of the Google quality assurance test, your app would get a “Seal of Approval” and perhaps highlighted/ranked higher in the store. As a developer, I wouldn’t mind paying a couple bucks to get my application qualified and thus have it rank higher.

    And Google should make this free for applications which choose to make their code open source, with say 6 free submissions a year ;)

    This would push a lot of the crud down to the bottom.

    If google doesn’t step up, perhaps a third party could offer some type of certification and start ranking apps.

  3. Make two main categories:

    1. Premium – Developer Paid / Google “Approved” where only legitimate safe apps qualify after “approval” the developer pays to have the app added to the premium apps category

    2. Community – As is, no warranty or guaranty.

  4. Martin

    In the name of democratic process Google lets developers put out anything they like on the Market with the users of Android phones left to sort out the junk and good apps not getting enough coverage!!!



    DEVELOPERS BEWARE: Those in most countries won’t be able to sell, those who can sell won’t make any money!!!

    1. Adult in nature, apps from devs such as: “jackyli”, “”, “AROMA PLANNING”

    1. Violate copyrights: “Joon Apps”

    2. Improperly categorized: You can find hundreds of adult photo apps such as those from “AROMA PLANNING” in Games -> Casual

  5. Google doesnt need to do anything to the market. What the market needs is someone to create an app that re-organizes it and makes it customizable to those who download it, I’d pay for that.

  6. Kevin, with all you are asking Google to do you are essentially requesting Google turn into Apple with a similar app approval process. Then you have a closed market. They can’t guarantee that the app is not malicious without a code review which is why the permissions model at the user level is the right thing to do. After all, on your computer, do you just open any random attachment sent in your email, or do you consider whom it has been sent from and the risk of opening it? Also, Viacom’s loss in the recent lawsuit reinforced that Google has done nothing wrong, and it is content creators like Viacom who need to respond with take down notices. At least this system allows for fair use. Apple rejects apps without that consideration.

    It sounds like you would be happier with an iPhone and the controlled experience that provides. Why not get an iPhone 4 instead?

    • That’s an interesting thought, Bill. I guess I’m looking for some sort of balance between guarding the users but still remaining as open as possible. I like Andy’s suggestion above, in fact — it would still put the burden on the user as you suggest, but offers a better experience.

      As far as me getting an iPhone instead, there’s a number of reasons I prefer my Nexus One: no carrier control, fast updates from Google, ability to flash different ROMs (I’ve done this quite a bit), the free portable hotspot feature, etc… just personal preference, of course.

    • AndroidUser

      “They can’t guarantee that the app is not malicious without a code review which is why the permissions model at the user level is the right thing to do. ” –Bill

      So, do end users have this code review capability? No, and a fool and his money are soon parted.

      I only use google apps. Why? Because I don’t know what is safe info to give and what is not safe info to give. I don’t have ‘code review’ capabilities. And I only trust google because ‘so far so good’; they haven’t messed me up yet–they have a reputation. I’d use a stock management app if it was available with my brokerage company (it’s not-why?) and if there was a guaranty. But how does one know if something is safe without an app review process? Again, It’s funny, you want people to make up their own minds if something is safe, but you know that people don’t have any way of knowing if apps are malicious or potentially malicious. Even hackers know they are not immune to hacks. Google must review apps.

      So yeah, bottom line. I don’t download apps unless they are google apps or made by the institutions I have come to trust. So far, pretty much just google. I tried a couple others…Facebook and a dictionary app. No fart apps. Maybe the store needs a sanctioned review process…most of the android in-store reviews read like spam to me. So if you are a new app maker, how are you going to get me to trust you without a restrictive review process or a reputation and a guaranty? A review process will actually help good app makers.

      • There is a spectrum of risk and Apple have chosen a different spot on that spectrum to Google. Both companies mobiles OS’s are more towards the risk-averse end of the spectrum than any desktop OS is.

        Are you as paranoid about installing desktop software? There’s an even lower barrier to entry there and no security sandbox whatsoever.

        If you are then that’s cool but from what you say about your attitude towards app security it sounds like you’d be a lot more comfortable with the iPhone model than the Android one.

        I’m currently happy with the risk/reward ratio of the Android Market. It’s the spam and clutter that bothers me.

      • androidUser

        Paranoid is a funny word. When you can’t see a stranger and you don’t know a stranger, should you open your wallet to the stranger?

        The truth is I have been hacked before because I have been too trusting. For instance, using firefox add-ons can be perilous. Burned once, I know longer use third party add-ons from unknown developers and don’t trust the firefox user reviews…is this justified fear or paranoia?

        Should microsoft review software? They need to do something NEW! I see where you are going. It comes down to trust and experience. I’m not downloading free applications on a microsoft or apple platform without knowing the company (example: I’ll use software from a known game maker or a bank with insurance or from the company that makes my printer…u get the picture–trust) But if google had a credible review process, I might consider a new software maker/app maker. And some info should simply not be accessible. Why do I need to share my contacts! Phone numbers! Can’t google limit the accessibility of this info or mask it? Do they? Remember, I’m an end-user, not professional.

        Okay, so what is the difference between Microsoft and Android? Malware makers would know how android works from the get go if it was truly open. Malware Makers seem to know how Microsoft works even though it’s proprietary/close. They exploit holes that dupe experienced security professionals and much easier, they dupe hapless end-users that don’t know the meaning of ‘code review’ …

        BTW, Microsoft and Apple actually warn you when you are about to run a new executable file with a very clear warning box…but not google. I know there is fine print someplace but where is the autonomous warning box? Maybe that should be rectified, but it would bring the issue up front and center, wouldn’t it? But that would be honest.

        Maybe the question of open source V closed source/proprietary will eventually come down to which platforms insurance companies are willing to insure or for how much. Or whether banks are willing to develop software for open source V closed source.

        And one more difference between Microsoft and Google: I have yet to lose my banking money through Microsoft–there is a modicum of trust. That’s the nicest thing I can say about M$–I don’t trust them much.

        Since Google is pretty new to the OS world, maybe they should assist new app makers with a credible review process. Open is just a word…when it comes to your money…it’s not even a good word–maybe even a bad word!

      • “Why do I need to share my contacts! Phone numbers!”

        Lots of reasons. One example: you’re installing an app that replaces the stock contacts/dialer app.

        “Can’t google limit the accessibility of this info or mask it?”

        They do limit the accessibility of this info: they inform users at the time of install that the app will have that access, and require them to approve it. It’s in big orange type with a big exclamation-point-in-a-triangle warning sign.

        “BTW, Microsoft and Apple actually warn you when you are about to run a new executable file with a very clear warning box…but not google. I know there is fine print someplace but where is the autonomous warning box?”

        Simply untrue. Again, at the time of install users are informed what the app will have access to, and are required to approve it. It’s not fine print, it’s big orange type with a big exclamation-point-in-a-triangle warning sign.

        You’re right tho, it does come down to users thinking critically about whom to trust. Similarly, I generally avoid clicking on ads that claim I just won A FREE IPOD!!!1!, but I don’t ask or expect my ISP to guarantee all ads are legitimate, or that all websites are legitimate, even though it’s incumbent on users to decide which sites to use.

      • androidUser

        Thanks, Chuck, for your answers. I also agree with Mike saying nobody can guarantee that code is not malicious. But users can minimize the chance of being ‘compromised’.

        Sharing contacts would be okay if the app couldn’t use it except on my phone and for limited purposes. I’ll have to reread some of those warning messages Chuck mentions. I really don’t mean to misinform and don’t mind being corrected. To my knowledge, I have never been hacked on my android phone…. :)

    • “They can’t guarantee that the app is not malicious without a code review”

      Wrong on two levels. First, nobody can guarantee that an app is not malicious even with a code review. The idea that Apple’s app store reviews guarantee well behaved apps is a myth.

      But Google does something that Apple is incapable of doing: they have given Android a solid permission system. Unlike the app store review, Android’s permission system really does guarantee that if you don’t give an app permission to do something, it can’t do it.

  7. larrysucks

    It comes down to openness -vs- control. Neither is inherently bad, but both can be carried to extremes. Consumers flock to iTunes because Apple does reasonable (maybe ‘fanatic’ is a better term here) app testing and applies standards (however draconian) to ensure some minimum level of app compliance. Consumers benefit and developers prosper. Apple has created a closed ecosystem where most benefit from the controls imposed. Apple is quite happy with their app ‘Disneyland’ and many consumers are too.

    Open is as open does, and Android is well and truly open in any real sense of ‘open’ you want to apply. The downside is that none of the care and feeding of the app ecosystem in iTunes exists in Android. You can write anything you want and throw it into the app pond for others to consume. Much of it is great. Some of it is dreadful. A few are truly dangerous, waiting to be beheaded by remote kill switch. The Android ecosystem is less successful than iTunes, but suits certain app styles better. Consumers vary in their view of this, some having come to expect the benign dictatorship of The Steve. There is also device/version fragmentation in Android (remember Java on handsets? Fragmentation kills.)

    Taking an evolutionary approach to app futures, the ecosystem with the highest evolutionary churn will usually win out, and that would be Android. iTunes can counter with an continual slow leak of ‘openness’ over time to make Android less attractive without totally giving up control.

    Carriers can influence this greatly by cooperating with each other and selected handset makers to calm the Android chaos down a bit. The bad news is they’re all spiders, not ants – and spiders are not known for their cooperative instincts.

  8. expopanda

    I’m a huge google fanboy; I own a nexus one, I play around with app development in my spare time – and I violently defend my platform of choice against blind apple fanboys.

    With all that said, I have a serious love-hate relationship with the Android market. On the one hand I believe in freedom, and I love the fact that anyone can post to the Market without dealing with some draconian approval process, on the other hand I hate wading through the junk soundboards and wallpaper apps just as much as anyone else.

    My proposal would be for Google to do a few things:
    a) Improve filtering and search
    b) convert currency so that I don’t have to work out yen -> $
    c) Two-tier merket: keep the free market, and add a “Gold” market which is protected by an approval process.

    If you like my suggestion then please post a comment here:

    If enough people speak up, maybe Google will think about implementing it


  9. Daniel

    One area in the Market where I would love for Google to fix is comment spam.

    There are some notorious users who consistently post spam comments to app pages. I seemingly can’t keep up with reporting these comments. Google needs to automatically ban users whose number of reported spam comments exceed a certain threshold.

    Google has done an excellent job in keeping spam out of its web search and Gmail, it’s now time to get its act together with a Market overhaul.

  10. I recently posted this suggestion on Hacker News:

    Have a filter option in the Market app a little bit like safesearch. You’d have a single slider. 3 or 5 positions (low moderate high etc).

    Filtering would work in a metascore comprised of several metrics. The metrics would be opaque and Google would tune them regularly like it does with it’s search ranking.

    Example metrics might be:

    1. ‘Spam’ score based on app description.

    2. ‘Spammy Developer’ score based quite simply on the number of apps released by this developer (this would immediately clean up most dross but people would quickly find ways to game it)

    3. User ratings (weighted by the rating given to that user by other users)

    4. Ratings derived from Google’s web rankings of the app’s web presence

  11. I don’t know how we can give Google a pass on being complicit with the copyright infringement that is rampant on the Android Market. They have the tools available and no one is asking them to do it overnight. But have they even removed one of these infringing apps? It might be culture thing as well. I previously thought book authors and Rupert Murdoch were complaining about nothing when it comes to Google’s disregard to content ownership. Maybe they weren’t so crazy after all. Do you think requests to investigate an app that contained Google’s search algorithm be ignored?

    Also on the point of the detailed list of access when downloading an app, this is way too confusing for “normal” users. If you are reading this article, you are not a normal user. A friend of mine, professional, can use tech for work, has almost no apps on his 4 month old Droid. When I asked why, he said the detailed list of access scared him actually installing any app. For normal users, you are going to get two camps. One that scared of the list and will not install hardly anything. One camp that will completely ignore the list and download the app anyway.

    • “A friend of mine, professional, can use tech for work, has almost no apps on his 4 month old Droid. When I asked why, he said the detailed list of access scared him actually installing any app.”

      Good, because that’s what it is intended to do: if you don’t understand the permissions don’t install the app.

      On iPhone, the situation is far worse since there are no permissions you can see and you’re completely at the mercy of Apple’s review process; and Apple’s review cannot reliably detect malicious applications.

  12. Jakob Damkjær

    Wow thats a lot of webrage.

    slight diffrence between google add financed violation of recording artists work and rights to fart apps…

    Same thing with copyright and trademark infringing apps that you pay for… I smell a big fat lawsuit coming on if this not a fluke,,,

    well just my 10 cents…

    have fun


  13. Android Market is not that well organised it doesn’t seem finished, a work in progress. They need to have the most downloaded apps for your country. The apple store is far better, I have managed to get the apps that I want but you have to look through lists of apps. If say you look up London you only get a handful of apps, there must be more in relation to London. They need to spend some money on making it a better user experience.

  14. Aristophrenia

    Um – do you think we should clean up the web ?
    Oh no – its hard for me to find apps – do you know what an app is ? Its an application. I can search for millions of applications using google – and do so every day. If the WEB a.k.a GOOGLE is a bit too much for you to handle then of course a store front is going to be waaaay to hard.

    Get life – seriously. Why is the web being dragged so forcefully backwards from an open play ground of wonder – to a closed shop of commodified, homogenized, censored boredom because people are so desperately incapable of understanding things they want it dumbed down – like everything else – to the lowest common denominator.

    Seriously – use your brain.

    • You miss the point –
      Their store needs to at least make it possible to check and pull copyrighted material from the store or they will end up replaying the Viacom vs. Youtube lawsuit again, and this time they can not plead ignorance.

      Google needs to be proactive.

      Also a certification that it is virus free, malicious software free, and will not screw up your phone would be nice.

      • The YouTube example is an apt one: Google doesn’t need to be proactive, copyright holders need to be proactive. Google just needs to respond appropriately to takedown requests.

  15. Dustin

    I do agree that app stores in general need some clean up. I have a evo and do agree that google needs to do something but I would also say that apples app store could use some work. All in all there is no way we need 100’s of fart apps.