Android Market makeover can't hide fatal flaws

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Android Market is dead. Long live Google Play. Last week, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) scrapped the Android Market brand and concept to unveil Google Play, an overhaul that merges its app store with its Google Music and Google eBookstore efforts under one umbrella a la Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes, which includes the App Store for iOS. Google Play will feature more than 450,000 Android apps and games alongside millions of songs, thousands of movies and cloud storage to keep it all in one place. "Google Play is entirely cloud-based so all your music, movies, books and apps are stored online, always available to you, and you never have to worry about losing them or moving them again," wrote Jamie Rosenberg, Google's director of digital content, on the company's blog. "Our long-term goal is to roll out as many different types of content as possible to people around the world, and we'll keep adding new content to keep it fresh."

The changes don't stop there. Days after the Google Play launch, TechCrunch reported that Android Developer Ecosystem Manager Eric Chu is stepping down from his role as head of Android application sales. Rosenberg will assume control of mobile app and game sales within Google Play moving forward, although his title will not change; Chu will remain with Google and is exploring new options within the organization.

What happened? Citing a source that has worked closely with the Android team, TechCrunch reports that Android Market's internal management structure essentially split control between Chu and product management head David Conway, muddying the chain of command and creating political tensions within the unit. The report adds that Android Market was long a secondary priority within the Android group, stating that Google Vice President of Mobile Andy Rubin judged the platform's success based on device activations and mobile search revenues, not app downloads and sales.

Android devices make up 48.6 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, far ahead of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) rival iOS at 29.5 percent, according to data published last week by digital research firm comScore. But consumer interest in Android applications continues to lag far behind enthusiasm for iOS apps and games, much to the detriment of developers building apps for the platform. Late last year, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimated that Android Market generated just 7 percent of the revenues that Apple's App Store has raked in since its inception. Last week, Apple announced that iOS developer payments now exceed $4 billion, with App Store downloads surpassing 25 billion.

In January 2011, Chu admitted Google was "not happy" with sales of premium applications and vowed significant marketplace improvements. Two months later, Android Market rolled out in-app billing functionality, enabling developers to leverage monetization options like try-and-buy, virtual goods and upgrades. But a year on, Google still only supports in-app purchases across 29 international locations; moreover, Google Play still doesn't offer subscription billing at all. Add ongoing platform fragmentation concerns, piracy headaches and malware threats to the mix, and it becomes painfully clear that Android needs much more than an app store name change and a revamped executive structure to effectively compete for developer mindshare.

At least one developer has already given up the ghost. Mika Mobile, the studio behind the hit mobile games Battleheart and ZombieVille USA, announced late last week that it is dumping its Android efforts, stating its existing Android apps are not generating enough revenue to justify the additional support costs that the platform demands. "We spent about 20 percent of our total man-hours last year dealing with Android in one way or another--porting, platform specific bug fixes, customer service, etc.," Mika Mobile co-founder Noah Bordner writes. "I would have preferred spending that time on more content for you, but instead I was thanklessly modifying shaders and texture formats to work on different GPUs, or pushing out patches to support new devices without crashing, or walking someone through how to fix an installation that wouldn't go through. We spent thousands on various test hardware. These are the unsung necessities of offering our apps on Android. Meanwhile, Android sales amounted to around 5 percent of our revenue for the year, and continue to shrink. Needless to say, this ratio is unsustainable." And needless to say, that ratio has to change.--Jason