A Poor Man’s App Store?

UnknownSources A year ago, as awesome as Android 1.0 was, it had a whole lot of warts. Today, with much better hardware running Android 2.0, the wider geek world is coming around to recognize Android’s potential. But in a recent TechCrunch post, Jason Kincaid pointed out a big ol’ wart he still sees sitting there on the end of Android’s nose…

I’ve spent the last week thoroughly enjoying my new Droid, but there’s one big issue that needs far more than a UI tweak: Android Market. Reviewers are finding that Android has a weaker selection of applications than the iPhone not just because some of their favorite apps aren’t there, but because actually browsing the Market just isn’t as enjoyable as what Apple’ App Store offers. If Android’s Market’s perception as a poor man’s App Store is going to change, this experience needs to improve.

Jason has a point. Even with its recent refurbishing, the Market is lacking as a competitor to iPhone’s App Store. But the Market is only a competitor to the App Store because we think of it that way, and try to use it that way. Android software distribution can be as open as the Internet, and yet we act as if it’s as closed as the iPhone. Worse, we then complain about the ways the Market fails to live up to the comparison.

Why do we do this? Well, it’s hard to escape doing so. The iPhone has made a map of how a smartphone platform succeeds, and so, consciously or not, we try to follow that map with Android.

This is in part fueled by a desire to compare Android to the current standard bearer. Whether holding up Android as the “iPhone killer” or simply as “just as good as iPhone,” we know the question will come: does it have an App Store? Or someone ditches their iPhone for a Droid, and asks, “Where’s the App Store?” And we want to be able to answer, “Sure, of course, it’s the Market. That’s Android’s version of the App Store.”

But there’s a better answer: Android doesn’t need an App Store. You can get software from anywhere.

Or we’re asked what’s so open about Android as a platform, and we point out that Apple is much more heavy-handed in its control of the App Store than Google is with the Market. But again, there’s a better answer: Google can get as draconian as they want with the Market, and we’ll still be able to get software from anywhere.

Most of those reading this blog already know that, but we may not realize what a fundamental difference it is. Tim O’Reilly made the distinction well in a recent post about threats to the web’s openness:

The Apple iPhone is the hottest web access device around, and … while it connects to the web, it plays by a different set of rules. Anyone can put up a website, or launch a new Windows or Mac OS X or Linux application, without anyone’s permission. But put an app onto the iPhone? That requires Apple’s blessing. … I’ve argued that there are two models of operating system, which I have characterized as “One Ring to Rule Them All” and “Small Pieces Loosely Joined.”

O’Reilly associates “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” with Linux and with the Internet itself, but it’s easy to extend the analogy to Android’s model of software distribution as well.

But that feels a bit dishonest, doesn’t it? We all know the Market has critical mass. And that, friends, is the problem. The problem is not poor user interface or lack of a desktop client. The problem is that we–users and developers–reflexively turn to the Market as our version of the App Store. The more developers only distribute and market their software via the Market, the more reason users have to look only there to find software. And the more users look only to the Market to find software, the more reason developers have to only distribute software there. Each reinforces the other, and in a world where “App Store mentality” rules, it’s hard to think otherwise.

Granted, the Market will likely always be an important distribution channel, but we needn’t treat it as more than that. We, users and developers, can use the Market just as pipes for delivering software–not as a curator, not as a destination. And as one set of pipes among many.

The current options have a fairly low profile, but there are several. We have Android-specific distributors with their own Market-replacement apps, like AndAppStore, SlideME and Archos’ AppsLib, as well as multi-platform mobile software distributors like GetJar and Handango. And we also have developers who distribute their own software directly online, and those who market their apps online, using the Android Market merely as a means of distribution (e.g. with QR codes or direct market links).

Looking ahead, is it far-fetched to imagine an Android department on Amazon.com? They already sell downloadable software for several platforms, and have developed a couple of apps for Android. A big player with that kind of name recognition would make it easier to get out of the “App Store mentality,” and would make it widely known that the Market is not the only game in town.

When developers routinely market their software every which way, and when users stop turning reflexively to the Market as the only source of apps, the questions about how the Market stacks up to iPhone’s App Store will become irrelevant. And so will the Market’s perceived failings, since most are tied to trying to use it as our version of the App Store. When those issues become irrelevant, that’s how we’ll know Android is maturing as a platform.

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