Funny how you don’t hear Google talk so much about the inherent advantages of open platforms anymore. That used to be the calling card and the big differentiator of Android against the supposed soft totalitarianism of rival Apple. Keeping the system open to all publishers and to revision, even on the operating system level, was supposed to open up new pathways to innovation. I prefer avoiding ideological arguments over this sort of stuff. But after a number of years of playing around on both Android and iOS platforms, and spending more time than I should drilling into their respective app stores, it seems to me that Google Play is still playing catch-up when it comes to app consistency, reliability, and just overall polish.
As Google itself has been tightening its notion of openness when it comes to Android, it is clear that sometimes the former evangelists of open sure do wish they had Apple's closed garden to play with. According to reports at Techcrunch, Google has been policing its own app store more rigorously in recent weeks. As the company gets ready to issue its next iteration of Google Play, it seems to be sweeping out up to 60,000 spam apps. Unlike Apple, Google does not pre-approve apps. But they have been known from time to time to go into their own app store and use term of service violations as a way to get rid of troublesome apps.
Google’s TOS warns against posting repetitive content, misleading descriptions and categorizations, auto generated apps, and apps that simply drive affiliate traffic.
Google seems to have grown out of its open platform fetish and perhaps matured -- as all of us must -- into appreciating the value of predictability, quality, and some uniformity. If only their own operating system were able to give developers a consistently high level and singular platform target. My biggest complaint about the Android marketplace has always been false labeling of some content. Especially in its early days, the marketplace used to have tons of apps promising content from major media brands and even using their logos, but actually having no legal connection to the brand.
Which is not to say that Google’s efforts at improving the quality as well as the look and feel of its app market have been for naught. Google Play, which is almost a year old, is much, much better than its predecessor -- at least in look and feel if not an actual quality. It will be interesting to see both the app revenue numbers and the ad responsiveness numbers as we move forward. As everyone knows, Android has the handset scale war well in hand, but Apple and iOS still own much of the tablet market and also just monetize for developers much better. And in most cases, people with iPhones simply engage in more content consumption.
As much as some marketers like to cheerlead Apple because of its natural affinity with such a legendary example of brilliant branding, I think it is actually best for the industry as a whole if the distinctions between iOS and Android dissolve over time. For marketers and for media companies, I can’t imagine that we really do want different technology and interfaces to profoundly affect people’s behaviors. Shouldn’t the goal be that these devices seem more like appliances in the end? Having a high-end stainless steel refrigerator has its advantages, to be sure, but we really don’t want it to result in people eating more or less food. Overall platform improvements in media technologies, such as HDTV, may increase overall consumption, but you really don’t want owners of Sony sets to be watching more or less TV than owners of Samsung sets.
I have already said in a couple of places that I think the app ecosystem, its marketplaces, and even the way that apps interact with one another, really need to evolve to a next stage. It would be nice for the major operating system makers to recognize that less might actually be more when it comes to app catalogs, and maybe Google’s spring cleaning is a move in that direction. No one is impressed anymore by having 1 million or more apps in your catalog. But more to the point, app discovery still simply sucks. In fact, this is one place where I think Apple remains behind the curve. The recommendation engines at both Google Play and Amazon's app store are more proactive in Apple’s.
But I am also a little astonished that more people, developers, marketers and even media companies are not frustrated by some of the inherent limitations in the app paradigm. The absence of general content discovery within the apps is such a glaring disconnect from digital media that we have developed over the last two decades, it seems obvious that this is a next big problem to solve. Likewise, the hyperlinking across sites, which made the Internet what it is, is also absent in the app context. It is hard to believe after five years of the app environment that most of us aren’t tired of the in-and-out content navigation dance that apps require.
We are beyond the stage of being dazzled and even thankful about what our handsets can do now. I would like to see the engineers and designers building the next generation of app ecosystem -- if they’re imagining one -- move beyond trivialities like whether there should be realistic stitching on the edges of apps and a better way to Tweet that.