Our third, final, and perhaps most important article of Android week takes a look at the Android marketplace.
For all that our smartphones do out of the box — phone, GPS, email, music, internet — it is really their ability to do seemingly anything (and everything) else which is their greatest feature. The degree to which this is possible depends almost entirely on our ability to load additional programs onto the device.
Apple began this trend with their excellent App Store. Google has countered this with the Android Marketplace. After years using the former and a week-and-a-half with the latter, we take a look at the differences.
If you browse the Internet looking at comparisons of, say, the iPhone 4 and the Google Nexus S, you will find seemingly no end of reviews that give the edge to Apple on the virtue of numbers alone. Apple has over twice the number of applications, they say, so their store is better.
The logical fallacy here should be clear — more and better are two very different things. For instance, amongst those 350,000+ applications available to iPhone users are many an application that simulates fart noises. It is hard to be convinced that this makes for a better store.
Obviously numbers do matter. An application store with ten applications, for instance, would quite clearly not have the variety needed. But there is probably little difference in having one thousand, ten thousand, or one million options for your Twitter application — the average user is likely to narrow their choices quickly to a half dozen or so, and pick what appears to be the best out of that list.
With over 150,000 applications in the Android Marketplace, we at the Big Bad Blog feel that Android easily clears this hurdle — after all, two years ago Apple’s App Store had a mere 35,000 applications available, and we never had a problem finding what we were looking for.
The Wild West
The second trope that seems to be pulled out quite often is mention that the Google Marketplace is like “the Wild West”. For instance, to quote CNet:
The Android Market is like the Wild West, containing a mix of the best, worst, smartest and dumbest apps, jumbled up in a way that can be hard to sort through.
We are never sure what people mean by “Wild West” when they say it in reviews. We suspect they don’t either — it has simply become a trope. Certainly we do not think of “a mix of the best, worst, smartest and dumbest” as the “Wild West”. We think of bad Will Smith movies, Clint Eastwood, shoot-outs and the Oregon trail. We have our doubts that you are likely to die of dysentery through the Android Marketplace.
Still, CNet’s points are worth talking about.
The Best. The best applications available for Android are, quite simply, better than the best applications available for the iPhone. The folks at Google don’t care if you’re replacing a core functionality of the phone with your App. They do not stop your application from running in the background, or playing with certain parts of the phone. They do not prevent significant changes to your phones look, feel and functionality.
All of this means that applications on the phone can simply do more.
The Worst. The worst applications available for Android are, quite simply, worse than the worst applications available for the iPhone. Google places no controls on what can be sold in the Marketplace, which means that things that are simply too tasteless (or too poorly coded) to make it through Apple’s review process are available.
The Smartest. We do not know what “the smartest” means. Obviously smart applications are better because they can do more (see “the best”, above), except when they’re really trojans stealing your identity. This might actually mean that the iPhone’s good applications are “smarter”, though, as they have to deal with more restrictions, and require more creativity to perform some of the same tasks.
The Dumbest. Again, we do not know what this means. Certainly Apple’s store has plenty of fart noises in it. We think that both stores manage to reach the lowest common denominator pretty well.
Jumbled up. This is one of the two very valid critiques of the Google Marketplace — Apple has done a much better job at helping their users to find things.
The Real Differences
The Apple App Store is far, far, far better organised than the Google Marketplace. While we spent many an hour with our iPhone browsing through the App Store to see what might come up, not only do we not do the same with our Android device — we have no desire to do so. A short-lived (and quickly aborted) attempt to interact with it as we did with the App Store was more than enough for us.
Instead, we decide what Apps we want on our new phone, and go directly to them.
Android is a platform. Phone manufacturers (and users) are allowed to load it onto any phone they want, and make any modifications they want along the way.
The iPhone is a product. Only Apple is allowed to make phones that run their mobile Operating System, and access to the phone from a personal computer is forced to take place through custom-made Apple software.
This is reflected in the functionality permitted in the applications for their devices. Android is seemingly infinitely customizable. If there is something your phone cannot do, it is because the application has not been written yet, not because the application is not available. On the iPhone, everything needs to fit within a managed Apple experience.
The end result is that Android applications can simply do more. Synchronize over WiFi, for example.
The flip-side of the increased flexibility and functionality that is available through the Android Marketplace is that the applications are not always benign. With no oversight of the applications, and the potential to interact with any other part of your phone, there is an increased wariness when evaluating an App from Google’s Marketplace.
This is, of course, healthy. Apple’s devices have had their own issues with applications that collect (and sell) user data, and perhaps a bit more due diligence ought to also be taken with purchases there. But the increased functionality and decreased oversight puts the onus on the end user to ensure that his or her downloads do not compromise the system.
The final difference, of course, is that Android users do not have to use the Google Marketplace. They are free to use the Amazon App Store, or the Opera App Store, or from any other place they can find that wants to sell them (or give them away for free).
With the shortcomings being largely specific to the Marketplace, and not to to the platform itself, one can find an App Store for their Android device that pre-screens applications and/or is organised in a pleasing manner for browsing.
So how do these differences impact our behaviour? In a very surprising way.
Every Apple Application we ever bought was done so via the iPhone interface. We would browse to find something, or search for a term, read the descriptions and reviews, and make a choice. It was simple, self-contained and easy.
With the Google Marketplace, we approach things very differently. We begin by identifying something we want — “a Twitter client”, “an RSS Reader”, “a music player”.
We then search on Google — via our PC — for information. Recommendations, reviews. We check the application-maker’s website. Do they have a forum? How do they respond to feedback? Do they seem trustworthy?
We then find the application in the Android Marketplace, and review the permissions it needs from our phone. Are all the permissions necessary, or does it include permissions that are not needed for the functionality described in the application?
Finally, we download the App from the Marketplace.
In the end, we expect that the Apple App Store and Android marketplace both appeal to different people.
The Apple version will appeal to those who are happy and satisfied with the Apple experience. Those who want whimsical things on their phone, enjoy browsing for them, and — while they may care that their phone has functionality — are unconcerned with limitations to that functionality. Those that prefer reasonable security with little thought.
Others — such as ourselves — get annoyed by the accumulation of silly, rarely-used applications that begin to pile up after multiple browsing sessions. If restrictions irk you, and a bit of research invigorates you, the Android Marketplace feels better. It discourages browsing — you need to know what you want, and go straight to it.
On the other hand, you can get anything you want.
We are of the second kind, and find the Android Marketplace a preferable place. For the former kind, there are other Android stores out there — but ultimately, if you want to be living within a managed mobile experience (rather than building your own), you are likely to find more success with Apple. It is, after all, their specialty.