Lost In The Android Bazaar
After a flurry of text exchanges, my iPhone finally rings, which is a sure sign my daughter either has grown so exasperated with me that SMS just won't do -- or she needs money. She is trying to talk me in for a landing after I became totally lost in the labyrinthine uber-mall that is King of Prussia outside of Philadelphia. She, of course, knows every faux brick of the place. "We're IN FRONT OF YOU" she enunciates like a condescending American tourist believing that speaking English slowly and loudly should be good enough for anyone in the world to understand. "No, don't turn around. I just said in FRONT of you!"
I still don't see her. But as if teleporting in from another dimension she suddenly tugs on my sleeve and appears at my side, phone at ear, eyes rolling, my partner beside her now reconsidering her relationship with such a befuddled 51-year-old.
"Oh my God! You didn't see us?" my daughter guffaws. "I swear, how did you manage to raise me? I am amazed you didn't lose me before I was two."
I was a lot sharper back then. And I am too polite to remind her that her usually full diaper was pretty easy to track long before geo-location devices came on the scene.
Okay, so maybe I am not the best person in the world to judge the navigability of a shopping mall. But even a clueless Mall-Magoo like me can see that someone had better come in and fix this Android market before the real crowds get here.
This week major mobile game maker Gameloft announced its intentions to curtail Android development, in part because this market has none of the merchandising chops of the iPhone. "On Android, no one is making significant revenue," says Gameloft's head of finance. "We are selling 400 times more games on iPhone than on Android."
Some mobile commentators have recoiled from Gameloft's remarks, and even I think Android will be worth pursuing. But it is a common lament I have heard on background for a while from developers. TechCrunch's James Kincaid chimed in last week, suggesting that Android get a desktop client to match iTunes. I applaud the sentiment that the Android market is underwhelming, but I am not sure that a desktop experience is the answer. The last stats I saw on app behaviors show that only a very small sliver of iPhone apps are discovered via the desktop iTunes software. Almost all apps are discovered and downloaded via the handset.
And that handset experience on Android is awful. I admit someone at Google is trying to make it better. In the 2.0 interface on the DROID I have been testing, the top of the log-on screen now has a carousel of featured apps that tries to mimic the iPhone experience. The trouble is that the carousel is not interactive, so you have to sit there and wait for different categories like Sports, News, Multimedia to fade in or out. Individual app listings have ridiculously brief descriptions. In addition to its basic fugliness, the catalog underscores its geeky priorities by spending more time stroking the indie developer community than the consumer. Cross-links to the developer's home page and a direct dial to the developer are nice, but more actual merchandising of the content would be nicer. It often feels as if the developers are marketing to themselves here.
The Android market is a perfect example of open-source culture run amuck. I don't know how they managed it, but with only 20% of the apps that the iPhone App Store contains, the Android market actually feels more cluttered and irrelevant to me. How many Family Guy, Napoleon Dynamite and SpongeBob soundboards does this world need, and why do I have to scroll through miles of them, along with RSS readers and browser links to find a decent app in most of these catalog pages? Granted, the iPhone app store has its fair share of fart machines and feed aggregators, but this place feels like a poorly managed flea market for fan boys, not even a nominally managed mall for earthlings.
There is also very real brand confusion in the market that underscores the weaknesses of such low barriers to entry. There are way too many browser shortcuts and RSS readers using the NYTimes, CNN, Fox names and logos. This could be an understandable deterrent to serious development. How are content brands, let alone consumer product brands, supposed to assert their legitimacy in this mosh pit? Wouldn't this give some publishers pause before wading into the muck?
I would hate to see such a powerful platform as Android devolve into just another dweeby Google lab project that appeals mainly to techies and open-source fanatics. As the DROID is followed up by other phones and the potential audience for it grows, the market needs to work much harder at speaking to a broader range of consumers.