After quietly shoehorning its own Android app store into its shopping app, Amazon has found itself in Google's cross-hairs. The search giant revised the Google Play Store's terms of service, preventing that behavior and forcing Amazon to remove the secret app store. But the general issue here—app side-loading—is much bigger than just Google v. Amazon. And it's something that impacts all users of mobile devices.
The proprietary app ecosystems used by each of the major mobile OS providers are essentially double-edged swords. On the one hand, they allow these firms to provide users with reliable, secure apps that can't undercut the OS as was so frequently the case on traditional desktop PC platforms. But on the other, they also lock users into the platform they're using and restrict them from accessing apps from other sources.
Platform makers promote the first half of that story. And they try to downplay the second, though that's arguably the real reason for this system. And as we're seeing in court this past week, Apple—ever the innovator—has been busy playing this game for over a decade: An Apple engineer admitted under oath that he worked to prevent third party music ecosystems from finding a way into the company's dominant iPod in the early-to-mid 2000s. So as usual, we have Apple to thank.
Harming the competition isn't inherently illegal, nor is protecting a hard-fought market dominance. But from the perspective of users, this kind of behavior, aimed at locking them into their current platform and preventing them from switching to another, limits choice. It makes it hard for someone to, say, switch from iPhone to Android, because they have an investment in apps, games, and media that in many cases can't be taken to the new device. And when it's time to upgrade, users make the decision that is right for them. Most often, that means sticking with their current platform so that they can move that content forward to the new device.
One of the things I'm fascinated by is tech pluralism, or what I used to call "sleeping with the enemy." Obviously, it's not enough to lock current users into your platform, you also need to attract new users and, when necessary, help them overcome the lock-in that may be keeping them in whatever device platform they're currently using.
If you're starting anew, that's easier, since there's nothing locking in a user to anything. And that's why every time I hear a representative from Nokia, or Google, or Microsoft, or wherever talk about "the next billion users," I wonder why that would be interesting to anyone who doesn't work for those companies. That message is all about grabbing new users before someone else does. It's the low-hanging fruit, and the less educated about their options the better.
More difficult, of course, is convincing those users who have already embraced a technology platform to switch.
Here again, we have Apple to point to as a pioneer. After watching its iPod get off to a disastrous first year in 2001-2002, Apple finally made the difficult decision to lower itself to attracting the masses and released iTunes—and iPod compatibility—to Windows, which is what 95 percent of customers were using. Both platforms exploded as a result, and Apple's current successes could never have happened otherwise.
And when Apple finally opened up its iPhone to outside developers, the company chose a lock-in model that was similar to that used previously by Nintendo and others in the video game industry. It wasn't going to allow Mac v. PC app gap to happen again, but more important it also wasn't going to allow others to come in and create apps freely for the device, sell or give them away online, and then devalue the entire platform (quality over quantity, though they of course miraculously achieved both). Apple, like Nintendo before it, would establish an approval process, in this case for mobile apps, and would be the gatekeeper to their own platform.
And now they're all doing it.
But each platform has its own wrinkles. Microsoft lets businesses side-load apps—bypass their online store—because that market is too important to restrict. Apple also allows corporate side-loading now, for the same reason, and its current deal with IBM is all about that market. Android, designed to be more open than the other platforms—you gotta have a hook—exists in both truly open (AOSP) and sort-of open (Google/Google Play) variants, and of course there are offshoots to AOSP such as Amazon's.
Android is unique in that it is the only major mobile platform that lets an end user just select a single option in Settings that enables them to install apps from unknown sources, i.e. side-load apps, on their own (quantity over quality, not to mention quantity over reliability). Amazon uses this to its advantage to enable the installation of its own app store, called Appstore for Android, on AOSP or Google Play Android devices. (It also forks Android/AOSP to create the Fire OS that is used by its own Fire handsets and tablets. Fire OS of course uses Appstore for Android as well.)
Amazon has tried to attract Android users to its own store via its popular web site, the theory being that these users would become locked into Amazon's ecosystems even if they were using non-Amazon Android devices. But the problem with this approach, from Amazon's perspective, is that it's a fairly esoteric concept, and most of the 1+ billion Android users out there are never going to find, let alone select, a check box that lets them install "unknown" apps. So to date, it's seen limited success. After all, most Android users simply use Google's Play Store. And over time they get locked in.
Amazon tried their end-run against Google's side-loading policies by building links to its app store from within the core Amazon Shopping app for Android. In September, it issued an update to this app that never called out the fact that it could be used to side-load apps from the Appstore for Android. But when news of this sneakiness became public, Google simply changed its Play Store policies—users acquired Amazon Shopping from Google Play—so that it was no longer possible to distribute apps that could in turn bypass Play by offering their own app downloads. Today, Amazon Shopping for Android no longer offers this capability.
(How do we know Amazon was being sneaky? It didn't submit Appstore for Android to Google Play. It hid the store inside another app.)
In the perfect (for users) world that I dream about, knowing full well it can never happen, we never need to worry about this kind of silliness. We can access the Kindle e-book store from within the Kindle app on iPad because Apple no longer unfairly tries to grab a 30 percent vig on all in-app purchases. We can access Amazon Instant Video through the Google Play Store. We can use Google apps on Windows Phone. And when we move to a new platform, our applicable purchases come with us: No need to buy the same content all over again.
Yeah, it's fanciful, I know. And while there are little exceptions these issues everywhere—Google Play Videos are available on Roku, which is interesting, and the Outlook mobile apps in Windows Phone (but not, annoyingly, the corresponding apps in "big" Windows) are compatible with Gmail/Google Calendar—the truth is, you're always going to be bit by some incompatibility somewhere if you use multiple platforms, or change platforms. That's by design. Apple doesn't want you accessing your giant iTunes movie library on an Android device, sorry. Google doesn't want to support anything that even smells like Microsoft. And as for Google and Amazon, I mean wow. There isn't a weirder love/hate, partner/competitor relationship in technologies these days. (Maybe Apple/Samsung. Let's move on.)
And if you do want to use the Amazon Appstore for Android for some reason, you still can, of course. You just need to find it on the web and make a configuration change on your device. In the end, I think this capability may be the best thing about Android: You can use it as its makers intended. Or you can do whatever you want with it.
As for Microsoft, in pursuing its mobile first, cloud first strategy, it is putting high-quality apps everywhere and is thus effectively bypassing these issues at the expense of making its already poorly-performing mobile platforms less unique and less enticing to users and developers alike. If you're a fan of Windows Phone or Windows 8+, this reality may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is at least pragmatic. Through essentially failing at mobile from a platform perspective, Microsoft may now see great success in mobile. Just not in the way many of us had hoped.