Home What Can Google Do to Thwart Android App Piracy?

What Can Google Do to Thwart Android App Piracy?

A new report from research firm Yankee Group shows that Android developers are facing a huge problem when it comes to piracy. Nearly 75% of Android developers surveyed said it was easy to copy an Android app and republish it. Half said it was “very easy.”

This is affecting the bottom line of developers, a third of whom said the consequences of piracy cost them more than $10,000 in revenue and support costs. The report says that developers claim they get no help from Google battling Android application piracy and that the Android Market is too soft. What can Google do to help protect developers?

Anti-Piracy Mechanisms Ineffective

The report says that anti-piracy mechanisms were used by 52% of developers. Yet, 62% of the developers also said that they have lost sales due to copy protection systems as consumers “are not big fans of licensing systems or copy protection.” In addition, 82% of developers said that copy protections have locked users out of apps they have legitimately purchased.

“Android apps are living in the Wild West without a sheriff,” said Carl Howe, author of the Yankee Group report, in a press release. “With five other major mobile OSs competing for consumer dollars, Google can’t afford to simply let pirates kill app developers’ businesses. They need to foster some law and order or developers will flee to other platforms and Android will lose customers.”

More than half of the developers surveyed (54%) agreed with the statement that Google was too lax in Android Market policies. In terms of ease of copying apps, Java apps compile into interpreted byte codes that pirates can easily decompile, deploying the apps on other marketplaces under similar names. Google’s licensing verification library is easy to defeat, the survey said. Android developers need to obfuscate that library to make it effective.

Apple uses binary machine code to compile and distribute apps that protects them so that pirates cannot easily change and redistribute apps.

Free Ad-Supported Apps The Answer?

The Yankee Group says, “the burden of thwarting piracy falls largely on app developers” and that Google must assert more control over the Android Market. Specifically, the report calls for application markets to be certified so they have the authority to enforce transactions and promote “fair and honest commerce.” This would include a badge that third-party app markets that says they meet “the standards of trust and accounting.” GetJar, Appia and the Amazon Appstore would be likely targets for such a badge. The report also calls for payment receipts that can be verified online to check that an app has been purchased legitimately. It also calls for the aforementioned code obfuscation and tamper checking for apps.

One somewhat far-fetched solution that the Yankee Group proposes is to make all applications ad-supported. If apps do not have to be paid for, piracy becomes less of a problem. The report calls for a “standardized AdMob interface into the Android development toolkit.” To a certain extent, Google has created specific AdMob tools, as we saw earlier this week. The report also recommends distributing a free app for in-app payments and to control all downloadable content as well as turning apps into subscriptions for content publishers.

Skyhook Conflict of Interest?

One odd thing about the Yankee Group report is its choice of research partner. Skyhook has fought a legal battle against Google saying the search giant breached a contract that would have used Skyhook’s as the default location services provider for Android.

Here is Yankee Group’s note on the research methodology:

“In preparing this report, Yankee Group relied on a survey conducted by Skyhook of 75 Android developers from 22 countries, each of which has a popular paid app in Google’s Android Market. Developers were asked 15 questions explicitly about Android piracy and their experience with it. Developers were also offered the opportunity to comment on their experiences with piracy; this report includes quotes from those developers.”

Given Skyhook’s history with Google, one has to wonder how those 75 Android developers were chosen and why the company would conduct the survey in the first place. The Yankee Group is a Boston-based research firm. Skyhook is also based in Boston. The report makes no mention of Skyhook’s previous legal trouble with Google.

We are awaiting comment from the report’s author, Carl Howe, and will update when we talk to him. Google has not responded for a request for comment.

Howe’s Response: Skyhook Passed the “Smell Test”

Update – 4:53 p.m. EST, Sept. 9 —

In a short conversation with Howe, we believe that Skyhook has no ulterior motive in presenting this data. Howe and Yankee Group researchers insisted on seeing the raw data from the survey knowing full well that Skyhook has a legal past with Google.

“It passed the smell test,” Howe told ReadWriteMobile. “There was no objective or skewing the data that we could see. As you see in the report, some of the data is inconclusive and not all developers see that there is a problem.”

Howe said that Yankee Group had been seeing this problem anecdotally talking to developers but had no hard data to back it up. He reviewed the questions and the raw data outside of Skyhook’s initial report and said that it seemed like it was good. Howe also said that Yankee Group’s CEO ran into Skyhook’s chairman at a tech event in Boston where the idea for the report was floated using Skyhook’s data.

Now, there is a chance that Skyhook picked 75 developers that they knew would answer their 15 questions a certain way, but much of the data is close enough to the 50% demarcation line that it seems unlikely that Skyhook was trying to influence results. What Howe did not answer was why Skyhook took it upon themselves to perform the survey in the first place.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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