Google. Photo: Simon Letch
One of the philosophical differences between Apple and Google in the smartphone space is where the perception of control lies.
To hijack some terminology from Eric Raymond’s essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Apple represents the centralised cathedral while Google takes the role of the bazaar. While Raymond’s essay used these terms to describe the degree of visibility of software design, they are equally applicable to the kind of software ecology that has developed around their respective application stores.
Apple has from the beginning created guidelines, processes and rules which they have enforced to maintain the level of quality and user experience that they desire. App developers are left with no doubt about who the gatekeeper and arbitrator of rules are. In a sense, Apple started by assuming that there would be malicious, lazy and fraudulent applications and proactively laid down the law.
Google on the other hand has tried to create an ecology where the market would organically develop its own structures and controls, the users would discover and share the good apps and bad apps would be punished through bad reviews and ultimately the app makers would have to wise up if they wanted to be successful.
There are some controls and guidelines, mostly at trying to stop the most egregious infractions but ultimately Google Play has traditionally been much looser around what business models and behaviours it will tolerate. In a sense, Google started with assuming that the goodwill and market forces would be enough.
Sadly, I think that history has shown which attitude has been more successful.
Last week Google made changes to its app policies to stamp out some of the worst aspects of abuses that have crept in. In particular Google has started to get explicit about trying to stop gaming of app ratings and the spam that usually surrounds this practice, such as constant prompts, system notifications and incentives for ratings. Personally, I have stopped even installing games now since four out of five will be littered with advertising (some hidden until you touch a region of the screen which brings up an ad in a browser), spamming my notification area that dodgy developer has released another dodgy game and only letting me proceed if I rate it a favourable number of stars. These tactics are even appearing in paid apps, which is unforgivable.
Even, as a fan of the Bazaar approach, I have to say that it’s about time that Google stepped in.
To those developers that have participated in any of these shady spam practices, to creating bogus apps that troll successful apps, that pretend to be something that they are not, I say that you brought this on yourselves. When given the freedom to create apps and innovate business models that have been locked off by other platforms, you have chosen the greedy and lazy route. To those responsible app developers, thank you for resisting the temptation and I hope that these rule changes validate your patience and grow your success and reputation.
I started this piece by deliberately using the words “perception of control” since while Google has taken the gentle approach to control, make no mistake that they are in control and these changes may just be the beginning if developers continue treat their users with such little regard. If commonsense and respect aren’t enough then there will be further pressure for Google to intervene.
I wonder if Google wanted to try to maintain a market centric approach if it could create an Android quality of user experience association which would create an industry (reputable app development studio) body which would collaborate on a self-regulatory standard which would be peer-reviewed and the developers that joined this standard would be identifiable, and filterable by, in Google Play? Creating an opt-in code of conduct rather than an series explicit “you shall not” style rules.
Developers rightly have the desire to profit from their creations. If Google can continue closing some of the gaps around app piracy, rub out apps that try to fake real ones and other shady practices then leave to the developers to conduct themselves without have to resort to tricks at the user’s expense then Google Play can continue being the interesting bazaar and an evolving application marketplace.
The ball is in the developer's court. Once freedom is taken away, you won’t get it back. A healthy marketplace is in everyone’s best interests. Those app developers making short-term money grabs exploiting the more liberal ecosystems will hopefully consider these rule changes as a wake-up call. For those developers that don’t change and continue with the status quo then good riddance.
You can read more about the Google Play policies here.
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