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Lessons from Apple: Is Android better with a free market or heavy-handed dictator?

February 2, 2010 | by Andrew Kameka

Featured post, Google Android

Lessons from Apple: Is Android better with a free market or heavy-handed dictator?

I recently received emails from two different iPhone developers. One from a dev frustrated by Apple’s nonsensical removal of his app from iTunes, and the other from an iPhone-turned-Android dev disappointed that his app was copied by another developer. The two messages arrived within a week of each other and ironically support two opinions I’ve held at one point: the Android Market is better because it’s open, but the Android Market is worse because it’s too open.

ANDROID IS BETTER BECAUSE IT’S OPEN?

Ray Wenderlich worked hard to create App Vault, a utility mega-app that combined several features into one iPhone app. That didn’t sit well with the makers of a competing app, App Box, who managed to get App Vault removed from the iTunes store by complaining to Apple. The competitor claimed App Vault was too similar to App Box and infringed on its copyright, so Apple removed App Vault without warning. Wenderlich argues that U.S. copyright law doesn’t permit the copyright of ideas and that Apple’s removal of his app without warning or investigation into the validity of the claims is yet another sign that Apple’s app policy is “bad for developers and customers.”

“It’s just another example of the problems developers can run into when there’s a single gatekeeper on the App Store,” Wenderlich says in the email. “And the more often this happens, the more developers will shift to Android.”

It’s highly-unlikely that you’ll see Google getting rid of Taskiller because of complaints by the creator of Advance Task Manager, but does that make the Android Market policy better? Putting aside arguments of appearance and financial rewards, one could argue that the Market is better because Android employs a free-market economy for its apps. Users are the ones who crown the king among similar apps and if something is malicious or inappropriate, they are the ones who initiate its removal.

iPhone developers must instead deal with the dictatorial hand of Apple. Illogical at its worst and arbitrary at best, the iTunes policy features an “as we go along” set of rules that apply to one situation but not another. Its a maddening environment that has frustrated scores of programmers.

ANDROID IS WORSE BECAUSE IT’S TOO OPEN?

chalky2On the other hand, you must consider the fact that Android could benefit from a gatekeeper to deal with instances in which apps are too similar for comfort. Eric Metois created the dancing stick figure app iChalky for iPhone and decided to port it to Android as Chalky. He charges that someone else tried to do the work for him, creating “a rather shameless imitation.” Metois claims that the thief ripped design elements in the app and even replicated his logo and tag line in its description.

Metois has no plans to complain to higher authorities, but the offending app should be removed immediately if his claims are true. The only problem is finding the person to make that judgment.

“I strongly doubt that Google would want to get involved in claims of application plagiarism,” Metois says. “Copyrights disputes have always seemed murky to me and considering the low revenue potential of an app and the complexity of a global market’s regulation, I m not sure it would be worth the effort.”

The beauty of Android is that success is determined primarily by the users, but users are truly powerless in this scenario. Chalky could become more popular than its copied version, but that won’t negate the existence of a knockoff. The lack of an established entity to quickly assess the situation and provide a solution is arguably a failing of the Android model. The open model is great until you find the rare occasion that a door needs to be closed.

Conclusion: ANDROID IS…

…More desirable when it comes to app store policies. I would love to see some tweaks that fight “applagarism” as Metois calls it, but Android has a better model for both developers and consumers. There has to be some trade-off between freedom and security, and Android straddles that line best. It would be great if Metois could shoot off an email and have someone from Google investigate and confirm his accusations to have the app removed; however, the alternative of having an app removed without due process isn’t very appealing.

The saga of Apple’s app approval process and boneheaded decisions is a sad and long one. Though the Android Market has its own shortcomings, a direct link between devs and consumers, and the absence of an arbitrary overseer, make for a better relationship. I give Apple all the credit in the world for developing a visually and logistically sound app store; unfortunately, the policies that determine who gets into it are a nightmare.