January 27, 2011 | by Michael Heller
Yesterday, we heard that Google is “not happy” with Android Market purchase numbers, so our fearless editor Andrew even suggested 5 ways Google can make itself happier. While they are all good suggestions, and it is certain that Google can do quite a lot to fix the Market, I’m not sure how much those changes are likely to help.
The first thing that came to mind when I read the original story was the old saying, “You can’t blame the wreck on the train.” Google may be disappointed with app sales, but they were the ones who pioneered the idea of giving things away for free and supporting that with ads. The latest AndroLib stats say that 65.7% of the apps in the Android market are free, and with the overall number of apps in the marketplace, there is almost always a free option for the app you want.
Beyond that, for a long time the Android Market had a 24 hour return policy, which allowed more time to evaluate an app before committing to purchase. Recently, in an effort to appease developers looking for more impulse buys, that window was dropped to just 15 minutes. But, some developers, including one of our own readers Brian Swartzfager, have said that the shortened return window has decreased purchases. So, how can Google be disappointed when they foster a certain ecosystem (try-before-you-buy), and users don’t respond when Google attempts to change that culture?
At the end of the day, we’re talking about an OS that is free to use, made by a company that is built on free products with ad support, and backed by an open-source community that has often needed to use creative ways to generate revenue. This is the Android ecosystem, powered by free apps. This is not the Apple world where users have been convinced that the only path to quality is to pay for it.
I can certainly understand the need for better filtering and curation in the Market. I know that many people want more payment options, subscriptions, and developers want to get in-app payments to bolster the freemium model. But, I think Google and developers need to be more creative in their thinking. Google needs to continue to foster the Android community as it has been built, and developers need to try new approaches to generate revenue. Let’s see if we can’t find a way to keep the Android Market filled mostly with free apps, and with fairly low-priced paid apps, and generate money in other ways.
In keeping with the spirit of open-source, Google could add the option for devs to accept donations on free apps directly through the Market. Rather than have developers hosting their own donation pages which pulls users out of the Market, Google can centralize the process, and keep users in the Market. Rather than the traditional 70/30 split on app sales, Google could take a smaller cut of the donation.
Another change would be on the developers rather than Google: stop offering such robust “lite” versions. Often in the Android Market, when you come across an app with lite and paid versions, the only difference is in whether the app has ads. Or we’ve seen many big name apps, like Angry Birds, be free and ad-supported in keeping with the Google way. As I’ve said, Google users are far more willing to accept an ad-supported app than to pay for it, so developers need to take more responsibility to add more value to paid apps, if they aren’t satisfied with ad revenue. Devs could remove or limit features in lite apps, but I would prefer to see devs institute a time limit on lite apps and require purchase for the full experience.
The users drive the ecosystem, and Android users have embraced the ad-supported model. If Google or developers want to change the culture they have built, there will be a risk losing users. But, there are ways to work within the culture, and still get what you want. It’s just a matter of innovation.