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The Android Dilemma – An Open Platform Open to Piracy?

Date: July 26, 2012
Author(s): Rob Williams

Unlike its leading competitor, iOS, Android is about as open as a traditional desktop OS. As such, piracy is no stranger here, and some developers speculate that the situation is made worse by the fact that it is “open”. We analyze that and other thoughts, and try to evaluate whether or not closing Android would solve anything.

Introduction, All About APKs & Piracy Issues

A bit late to the party, I was first introduced to Android early last year when a friend gave me a 2.2-based phone he was no longer using. Up until then, I had no interest in a smartphone – none. I didn’t think I needed one, and I didn’t want to get addicted to looking down at a super-small screen all the time.

Yes – I was naive. I quickly learned how useful a good phone could be, and I was addicted. Like most, the first thing I wanted to do was seek out some cool apps, which was around the time someone told me to “just pirate them… it’s easy on Android.”

When it comes to doing something against the grain on mobiles, “easy” is relative, so I didn’t investigate. Nor did I have interest in pirating apps that cost a dollar or two; it was senseless. Though not a developer myself, I’ve come to enjoy supporting developers that put out apps I want to use; for much the same reason I appreciate those who don’t block the ads on our website – seeing that next paycheck is pretty nice.

Months after I began using the phone, I found a game that Google Play wouldn’t let me install, despite the fact that I had much more advanced titles. So, I decided to investigate things further and see if I could install the game manually; aka: find it somewhere on the net. Were the developers just a bunch of lazies who didn’t update their support list? I was never able to fulfill this curiosity, but what I did discover is that this person wasn’t lying – pirating on Android is easy.

APK Files – A Pirates Kind?

Much like in a desktop OS, pirating software on Android requires the installer, and most often, that’s it. Download the installer, also known as the .apk file, from some shady website and copy it over to your device, then tap to install. Fin. No cracks needed.

Tentative OUYA Console Design
Tentative OUYA Console Design

When I first discovered this, the thing that surprised me most was how differently Google and Apple handled things. Apple locks things down tight, while Google seems to do nothing of the sort. Google doesn’t care if you install an APK, because it gives you the option to do so. Pirated software doesn’t get associated with your Google Play account, so automatic product updates don’t exist – but for many, that’s a small price to pay (pun intended).

The fact that piracy is so easily managed on Android is one of the biggest complaints about the OUYA console. Its designers tout complete openness, which might turn off developers worried about piracy. A counter-argument, however, is that companies like Electronic Arts, Square Enix and Disney already offer a lot of games on Android. Piracy hasn’t stopped them.

APKs Are Not All Bad

That’s not to say that APKs should be associated with piracy, because much like torrents, there are a multitude of good uses for them. If you’re a developer, you can create an APK to easily test your app on multiple devices. Then there are the apps that don’t make it to Google’s Play store; you’d be able to purchase or download a homebrewed APK elsewhere and install it without issue.

In the rare occasion, some developers might choose to release special APKs through their customer support program to help some customers get an app to work on their device when the official version doesn’t for whatever reason. I’ve seen it happen where a developer will acknowledge a specific issue and give someone an interim APK version to use while the next official update waits to get posted to the store.

Android APKs
Android APKs

As unfortunate as it is, it’s not uncommon for a developer to release an app or game update that’ll render it useless for your particular device. It’s the result of the enormous choice Androids fans get, aka: fragmentation. If a developer offers older versions of its apps, or you feel like braving dangerous depths of the Web, you’d be able to revert to an older version and regain functionality.

Relating to torrents once again, isn’t it great that some sites still offer installers for uTorrent 2.2 so that you’re not forced to use the latest and greatest bloated version? The same idea can apply to Android apps.

A Convenient Excuse, Payment Problems & Final Thoughts

Piracy Has Nil To Do With Convenience

The most popular excuse I’ve seen explaining why people pirate is that it’s “convenient”. It’s more convenient, somehow, to scour the Web for a pirate copy than to just pay for it. And apparently we’re living in an age where we all need to be spoon-fed our purchases, because companies can never make the process “easy enough”.

I believe that excuses like these, for the most part, are total BS. It’s never been easier or more convenient to purchase an app through Google Play, Apple’s App Store and others. You visit the site, click “Purchase” on an app, verify the charge and then wait for it to download and install. The only way the process could be any more convenient is if someone else did it for you.

Some refuse to believe that people who pirate, “just do”. It’s not about convenience, though it might be about funds, or the lack of. Pirating an app on Android is easy, as detailed above, but it still requires you to spend a lot of time rummaging through shady sites trying to find a download link that actually works, battling pop-ups galore and potentially, malware if you play your cards right.

When a game costs a mere $1, there’s no greater convenience than to just push a couple of buttons and have it download. But take the experience of Czech developer Madfinger Games, responsible for some of the best-looking mobile games out there, Shadowgun and Dead Trigger. Released last month, Dead Trigger was being sold for a dollar and is then supplemented further with the sale of optional in-game purchases. Sounds reasonable enough.

Madfinger's Dead Trigger
Madfinger’s Dead Trigger

According to a recent interview, however, Madfinger found that a staggering 80% of Android Dead Trigger installs were pirated, despite the modest pricing. According to the developer, its $5 Shadowgun had even higher piracy rates. For a game that has Xbox 360-esque graphics and costs about 1/10th of a new game on that platform, these rates are pretty alarming.

While Madfinger seems to be targeting Android, it can’t be argued that all mobile and desktop platforms suffer the same issue. Android just happens to make it easier than the others.

Part of the Problem is Google

On the topic of conveniences, giving people more than one option to pay is a good thing. This is an area where Apple sets a perfect example, and one where, for some reason, Google is slow to catch on.

As far as Google’s concerned, “Add a payment method” means “Add a credit card”, or a debit card that acts as a credit card. PayPal, one of the world’s leading payment processors isn’t an option, nor are popular overseas competitors. A simple debit card is not permitted, and best of all, gift cards for Google Play don’t exist.

That matters. Maybe not to you, but it does to millions of others. When there’s talk of a new “hack” on some major Internet service every other day, you might understand why some people don’t like using their credit card for online purchases more often than necessary, or they’d at least like to keep it exclusive to a service like PayPal. Of course, Google competes with PayPal, offering a less-stellar option, so consumers lose.

Apple’s gift cards are available everywhere. You can use real cash to purchase some credit, then punch the code into your account. This allows people the best possible option to keep their financial information safe, and Google seems to not care. Maybe we’ll see Google Play cards in time, but as the service has been around quite a while, I’m not counting on that day being soon.

Such payment options would also help those who either don’t have a credit card by choice, or can’t have one due to their age. These are people who cannot legally purchase apps from Google, because the option just doesn’t exist. Even I, someone with a credit card, would prefer going the gift card route.

But… Let’s Keep Android Open

That title might seem a tad ironic given some of the things that have been said, but hear me out.

Piracy on Android is as easy today as it always was, but with Madfinger’s decision to make Dead Trigger free, the issue is once again making the rounds. Some, as a result, are calling for Google to “close” Android, stating that an open system is a system where developers can’t run a reliable business.

Keeping Android Open
Keeping Android Open

This mindset is flawed. Windows, OS X and Linux are just as “open” as Android is, and not surprisingly, piracy runs rampant as a result. But the logic that an open system isn’t good for business is false, as these desktop OSes prove. What is good for business? Developing apps people want. As the adage goes, would you rather 90% of 1,000 people or 10% of 100,000 purchase your app?

It’s been argued that there are some benefits to piracy, but all in all, it’s not great. But it’s something that’s not going to go away just because a company puts in an arbitrary roadblock. Take a look at iOS. It’s locked down, but many people root their phones in order to… you guessed it, pirate. The same thing would happen on Android. If you want to pirate, you’re going to pirate. Any scheme a developer tries to pull to make an app difficult for pirates to crack is likely to affect the people they should care about most – their customers.

The beauty of Android is that it is open. Unlike iOS users, I can set a default Web browser. A default image viewer. A default text editor – and so on. I can completely overhaul Android’s front-end, without rooting the device. I have the option to customize the device to my heart’s content. I can install whatever apps I want to, once again, without rooting. Being open sure sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Would we risk closing Android so developers can see their product get pirated just the same?

I’m a believer that “one pirated copy” != “one lost sale”. People who pirate tend to do so because they can, or because they genuinely don’t have the cash to spare. Piracy on Android is no different than piracy on any other platform. As mentioned above, it just happens to be a bit easier on Android as the result of its consumer-beneficial openness (not that Android is “open” as in open-source, but that’s another topic).

As computing history has proven time and time again, closing Android won’t accomplish a thing, but it will have other regrettable downsides.

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