Free apps dominate Android Market, but at what cost?

Jason Akeny

Android keeps growing, and so does the number of free applications in Google's Android Market--free apps now make up 60 percent of the digital storefront's inventory, up 3 percent since May, according to new data issued by app store analytics firm Distimo. By comparison, Microsoft's Windows Marketplace for Mobile boasts the smallest percentage of free apps at 22 percent, with free apps making up 26 percent of both Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store for the iPad and Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry App World. Distimo offers multiple theories to explain the scarcity of premium Android apps: For one, developers in only nine countries are presently able to distribute paid applications via Android Market--moreover, paid apps are available in only 14 of the 46 countries that Android Market serves. Distimo adds that consumers must register for a Google Checkout account in order to download paid applications, except in locations where operator billing is available.

The challenges inherent in distributing and selling premium applications via Android Market have no doubt slowed developer interest in the platform. But Bloomberg reports that with consumer interest in Android exploding, an increasing number of developers are writing apps for the OS anyway, confident a major payday looms in the future. PopCap Games, creator of titles like Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies, plans to introduce its first Android games later this year: "Even though we are not making any money on Android right now, we have pretty high hopes for it," PopCap's director of mobile business development Andrew Stein said. "There's really no reason why users shouldn't consume and buy content to the same extent on an Android phone as they are on an iPhone."

Even so, developer frustration with Android is at an all-time high--in recent weeks, a series of prominent developers have publicly vented their problems with the platform. The most scathing comments originated via mobile software engineer Joe Hewitt, the developer responsible for social networking giant Facebook's wildly popular iPhone application: "Android tools are horrendous, OS is hideous, but the absence of big brother telling me what to do gives it a slight edge," he recently wrote on Twitter. Hewitt's previous tweets include comments like "The more I work with Android the more it reminds me of Windows... as in, it's really flexible, agnostic, and developer-friendly, but also really sloppily designed," "Android fragmentation will hopefully stabilize within 2 years, and if not, at least people upgrade phones much more often than computers" and "Once a day or so it hits me that I am writing Java, and I cry a little."

eBay Mobile product manager David Beach is a bit more complimentary, writing on his blog that "Creating an open source mobile platform was one of the smarter things Google has done. It's too bad that they haven't done that great of a job doing it. Android has succeeded despite Google. In fact it's safe to say that Android is successful for one primary reason. The iPhone is only available on AT&T. If the iPhone was on Verizon a year ago, Android would be nowhere near as popular. But since this has yet to happen, Android has become a huge market that isn't going away." Beach concedes that it's time for iPhone developers to begin writing for Android as well, but adds a number of caveats, among them the absence of human interface guidelines, a surplus of OS versions and handset models and Android Market's clunky consumer experience. "There are some good things," Beach adds. "Don't get me wrong. In fact over the past nine months, I've sort of fallen in love with Android and all its quirks. It's a tough love, but love nonetheless."

Last but not least, Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins pinpoints arguably the most significant reason why Android Market is so short on premium applications: Google's commitment to allowing consumers to return a downloaded app within 24 hours for a full refund. Calling the refund policy "senseless and lazy," Hawkins writes "When so many other things on the app store are already free and everything else is free for 24 hours, why would anyone pay for a game? Google defends this policy because they don't want to police the store. I could understand this if Google were a new startup with a small staff incurring startup losses. But we are talking about Google! If Apple and others can pay attention to what is in their app store, surely Google can also do so. Google has ignored this problem and may remain in denial until 2011, when the widening deficit in their app quality compared with Facebook and Apple should finally motivate them to fix the problem." It's your move, Google. -Jason