Android Market Changes: Everything But What We Needed

As someone who started in December of ‘08 working on an Android app, before there was even a paid app store, clearly I saw the reasons why Android would be successful. It still amazes me though how little has changed with the Android Market since then. 

The recent changes to the Android market still miss many of the basic issues and concerns that continue to make the iPhone “the” platform for premium (paid) app developers. I’m not going to applaud changes like making the app description longer than a measely 350 characters when that could have been changed almost 2 years ago. It’s still welcome, but it’s not nearly enough.

Today’s big news is the addition of carrier billing from AT&T to the Android Market. It seems like progress but it has little hope of moving the needle. AT&T is the one carrier whose carrier billing doesn’t matter for Android. AT&T has always had the smallest market share on Android and the most limited Android device selection. And with the iPhone, who is really buying Android on AT&T? I once spent two days convincing a friend that for her specific needs, she should get the Galaxy S class AT&T device (the Captivate). She agreed. Three days later I found out she walked into the store, saw the iPhone 4 and left with it only minutes later.

Despite Android sales surpassing iPhone sales, cross-platform developers know that paid Android app sales are a fraction of paid iPhone app sales. There are a myriad of reasons and theories behind this (Apple has had your credit card for years with iTunes, their marketplace is organized sensibly and has a desktop browser, the aggregate audience is still much larger on iOS, the Android audience makeup is different, etc). I still believe one major issue is trying to peck out a credit card number and your home address into a phone. You really have to “want” that first paid app if you’re going to buy it on Android. If you can discover it.

To me, AT&T carrier billing isn’t big news. Big news would be universal carrier billing from Verizon. That would mean the huge Android install base from Verizon would have access to seamless purchases on the Android Market. Realistically, that will never happen… at least not in the Android Market. Verizon has their own VCast app store with carrier billing and would be unlikely to add that to the generic Android Market. The best hope there would be for Verizon to retroactively update their old devices to include the VCast App Store. Actually, if that happens then that’s a great growth prospect for premium app developers already invested in the Android platform. Anyone remember why ringtones were so successful?

Another remaining concern is the byzantine sorting system Google uses for the Android market. Most people don’t realize that it is not a top sales/download list. See my previous post on the Black Box algorithm that Google uses. How did Windows Phone 7 get the sorting right and Android in 2 years still can’t? At a minimum, provide manual sorting options like “Most popular” or “Top Rated.” Give users some way to see a true sort of applications. If you look at the top paid apps, in certain categories it just makes no sense whatsoever.

My guess as to the holdup? I believe Google doesn’t want to show the drastic before and after picture when there’s a shakeup in the Android Market rankings. My advice to Google is to hurry up and rip off the band-aid. When you explain you’ve moved to default sorting based on actual sales and downloads, no one will complain because it’s a fair, transparent system. The Google run Android Market has a real chance of being replaced altogether by carrier specific stores or alternative markets. Now even Amazon is getting into the picture. I say good luck to them, but I also know that I’ve argued since last year that Google should have partnered with Amazon for payments from the very beginning. Besides iTunes, what other “account” tied to billing is everyone guaranteed to have? Amazon. 

Until these issues are resolved I will continue to advocate that premium app developers stay or start with iOS unless they’re a smash-hit game and can monetize through advertising (see Angry Birds). If you want to develop a free app, well that’s an entirely separate blog post…