Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Android Has More Free Apps Than the iPhone


It's official: There are now more free apps available in the Android Market than in the iTunes App Store. But is this really a good thing, for Android or Android phone owners?

On the surface, it seems like it. Who doesn't like getting free apps? When you look deeper, though, you realize that the reason there are so many free Android apps is one of the same reasons Android apps tend to be ugly: The extremely low barrier to entry.

Undiscriminating taste

As I explained in that article, it's a lot easier to get an app on the Android Market than it is to get one on the App Store. First, it costs less: A one-time fee of $25, plus $20 to sell paid apps, gives you Android Market access for life, compared to $99 per year for the App Store.

Second, the skills that it requires aren't as specialized. iPhone, iPad, and Mac apps are written in Objective-C using the Cocoa libraries, and are basically the only things in the world that use them. Meanwhile, Android uses Java. Java is extremely common, is taught in most colleges' programming courses, and is relatively easy to learn and to work with.

And third, the Android Market doesn't have any kind of approval process. To get on the App Store, your app has to be reviewed and approved by Apple, and screened to make sure it's not malware. In contrast, anything can be put on the Android Market. And while Google removes malware once it's found, its biggest defense is that apps have to ask permission to do anything to your phone. So if an app doesn't request phone privileges up-front, it can't call 900 numbers while you sleep (or something).

Caveat emptor?

For the record, I think Android's low barrier to entry is a good thing. It means more people can get started writing apps for it, or even do so on the side as a hobby. And not needing permission to upload an app means that app developers can get instant feedback, and can update their apps whenever they like. I even like the "requesting permission" thing, since it feels more respectful and less Big Brother-y than letting Apple control everything that goes on my phone. (This short, animated video on "trusted computing" explains what I mean.)

The thing is, Android's number of free apps isn't a feature, per se. It's a symptom, of Android's low barrier to entry. A lot of those free "apps" are wallpapers, ringtones, puzzle games featuring copyrighted characters, or even unfinished, personal projects. There is actually an app on the Market called This Is A Test, and its best feature may be its funny reviews. ("I can now breathe underwater! Thanks to this app!")

So the point isn't that free apps are bad, or that the Android Market is necessarily worse for users or developers than the iTunes App Store is. The point is that there's a reason for Android's inflated number of free apps, and it's not really something to brag about.

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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