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Google’s new app policies are an important step in the right direction

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Google is quietly taking a page from Apple’s playbook and making its app store a little less “open.” The company last week sent an email to Android developers detailing some substantial changes to its developer policies for Google Play, as The Next Web details here: Google now requires games in its app store that in-app purchases for virtual goodies use Google Play’s billing service, it explicitly bars specific kinds of sketchy content, it prohibits “unauthorized disclosure of people’s private and confidential information” and it bans the use of misleading keywords in app descriptions, titles and metadata.

Even more important, though, are the new policies address the intrusive ads that can make some Android apps unbearable. Google Play apps that present interstitial ads can’t force users to click on the ad to continue the app and must include “prominent and accessible” indicators enabling users to dismiss them without clicking through. Apps aren’t permitted to add browser bookmarks, homescreen shortcuts or other icons for ads or to direct users to third party sites or apps. And ads may no longer be pushed through Android’s notifications feature unless those ads contain content that is integral to the app itself. Developers have 30 days to make existing Google Play apps compliant; all new submissions must adhere to the strengthened policies immediately.

Google’s ongoing battle to polish Android

Demanding that all in-app purchases use Google Play’s billing service is clearly a financial move that will enable Google to take its 30 percent cut, just as Apple does with those transactions in iOS apps. But some of the other new policy changes illustrate that Google is trying to shed the “anything goes” reputation that places Google Play in such contrast with Apple’s App Store, which is far more heavily policed. (We’ve argued that Google should be policing its Android app store more aggressively for a few years now.) Meanwhile, Google continues to add security features with each new version of Android.

Android’s open source nature has fueled its ascension to dominance, of course. Not only is Android supported by a far broader portfolio of devices than iOS, its popularity among developers helped it quickly build out a massive library of apps. But Google’s decision to go open source – as well as its former laissez-faire strategy with its app store – has come at a cost. Google Play has become the Wal-Mart of Android where a wide range of customers using all sorts of devices get their content and apps, while players like Amazon and Samsung are trying to co-opt the platform with their own devices, services and curated apps. Which is why I’ve written that Google is in danger of becoming the slumlord of its own mobile OS.

Making the best of open source

Simply rolling out new policies won’t address all of the concerns surrounding Android. Mobile malware continues to be a major PR problem for Google, as evidenced by survey results released this week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI that found Android was targeted by nearly 80 percent of all smartphone malware last year, while iOS was targeted by less than 1 percent. The vast majority of those Android threats lie in third-party app stores other than Google Play, of course, but the splashy headlines are likely to dissuade at least a few users from turning to Google’s OS. And while addressing keyword fraud is a step in the right direction, Google Play will remain an overstocked warehouse teeming with worthless apps where finding the truly valuable stuff is a chore.

We don’t know yet just how aggressively Google will enforce its new rules. And while some developers – particularly the underhanded ones – will surely whine about Google’s new policies, they’re very likely to benefit consumers tired of downloading apps they don’t really want, or suffering through ads that make apps nearly unusable. Google still has a chance to create a kind of uber-Android under an entirely new brand, as I suggested last year. It has become increasingly clear that isn’t going to happen, but tightening its app policies and enhancing Android security are substantial steps in the right direction.