Daniel Eran Dilger
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Distimo polishes the Android Market turd

Daniel Eran Dilger

Mobile app analytics firm Distimo used a particularly wild amount of spin to suggest Android apps were headed toward global domination. They’re wrong, here’s why.

Under headlines that gasped “There are now more free apps for Android than for the iPhone” and “Android Market to outgrow App Store by July,” figures collected by Distimo were twisted and folded and stretched like a Thai massage by a variety of press release blogs.

To be fair, Distimo is just trying to drum up attention for itself by generating sensational headlines attached to its name. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy or eye catching or link-baiting about reporting that Apple remains in a league of its own in terms of its App Store; it has been ahead since it launched three years ago, and has maintained a large, obvious margin that has only widened since.

How is it that Google has turned around the App Gap?

Until Distimo’s report, it seemed pretty clear that Android Market was distantly behind the App Store, not just in the number of apps, but also in app sophistication, freshness, and in its generated revenues.

While customers don’t really care who is making money as long as they have access to the apps they want, the fact that the App Store is generating billions in revenues for developers while Google’s Android Market does at best a tenth of that does have a huge impact on how much developers are motivated to create and support apps for each platform.

In the 90s, while Microsoft Windows had a huge lead in the installed base of PCs, Apple’s Mac users were still able to get apps for nearly anything they wanted to do, with a few prominent exceptions. That’s because it was still profitable to develop Mac apps despite the huge disparity in market share and the installed base. Even Microsoft maintained Office for the Mac, because (and only because) it was very profitable to do so.

Today, Google’s Android platform is widely used by smartphone vendors — so much so that the entire installed base of all Android-based smartphones collectively appears to be slightly higher than that of iPhones. But Android Market does not reflect that parity, nor does it suggest that Android users, like the Mac minority during the 90s, have roughly the same choice of apps.

Mac Users Spend More Money, iOS Gives Biggest Bang For The Buck

Why is this the case, and why is Distimo arguing that it isn’t?

The simple answer is that Google has no real interest in promoting Android as a strong development platform. Google is an ad company, and got behind Android to ensure that the smartphone market wouldn’t be overtaken by RIM and (particularly) Microsoft, an event that would likely have locked the search giant out of mobile devices just like Microsoft once threatened to do on the PC with Vista and its ties to Windows Live/Bing Search.

The “Google Way” among Android apps is to push ad-supported content, which may involve Android’s Java-like apps, web apps, or web+ apps along the lines of its Chrome OS initiative. Apple is motivated by very different goals that revolve around Cocoa, which is the basis for both its Mac and iOS platforms. Cocoa apps sell Apple hardware. At Apple, ads are just a minor icing on the cake, not the cake itself, as is the case at Google.

The result is that Apple built the world’s most successful consumer software market, while Google has worked to simply tie the Android platform to its services and build out tools to monetize Android apps with its ads. What Apple did sounds easy but it is not. Microsoft, RIM, Sun/Oracle’s Java, Qualcomm’s BREW, Adobe’s Flash/Flex/Air, Palm and HP’s webOS, and Nokia have all worked to build similar app stores that have gained very little real traction and don’t amount to any real competition for Apple.

So how is it that Google has suddenly turned the market around and has tied Apple? Well it hasn’t. While Apple initially advertised its app numbers as milestones of the App Store, it has recently reigned in simple “growth in numbers” to focus on app quality. Just look at the company’s app guidelines, which now state that if you’re just pooping out junk apps or even stuff that is already well represented, your app is likely not to get accepted.

“We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store,” Apple said last September in its app review guidelines. “We don’t need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.”

Google has no such policy because it does nothing to approve apps in Android Market. All one has to do is pay a fee and shovel junk into its online listings. Suddenly it’s obvious why Google is “beating” Apple in free titles: 134,342 to 121,845 according to Distimo: they’re only comparing Fart Apps, ringtones and wallpapers. Of course Google is winning in that regard.

Inside Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines: ‘We don’t need anymore Fart apps’
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Google actually has a fraction of the paid apps of iOS App Store

More tellingly, what is the proportion of paid apps on Android to iOS? Again, according to Distimo (but not highlighted in its press releases), Apple’s App Store has 211,369 paid apps while Android Market has just 71,801. That’s not “brilliant” apps, nor top selling, nor even good apps, just a comparison of apps that are proud enough to charge at least 99 cents for a download.

So in reality, Google’s Android Market represents about 25% of the combined number of paid apps for Android and iOS, despite ostensibly being the larger platform in terms of market share and installed base. And how is it going to catch up to iOS by July?

It isn’t of course, unless you are comparing shovelware turds against real apps somebody might want enough to throw down a dollar. The problem for Android as a platform is that nobody does want to throw down a dollar for anything, and conversely, nobody wants to build anything worth throwing down a dollar to get.

Note that these numbers exclude 75,755 paid and free iPad apps, but include the couple dozen Android 3.0 Honeycomb apps for that “avalanche” of Honeycomb tablets that now on shelves or coming real soon now.

Cutting the App Store in half to make Android look better

Also, note that the iPad App Store, which Distimo pulls out as a separate store just to be able to generate the “Android bigger!!!” headline, is by itself the third largest app market, requiring that everyone else (Nokia, RIM, and Microsoft) require a change in scale on the chart. The iOS iPhone App Store, Android Market, and the iPad App Store are the only three stores (never mind that two of those are actually the one top App Store unless you have Distimo gerrymandering figures to generate completely silly headlines) selling apps in the 100,000 and up library level; Nokia, RIM and Microsoft are in the 6 to 26k range in terms of app catalogs.

Also note that Nokia, RIM and Microsoft were once scoffing at the iPhone as being an upstart that had little chance of success just four years ago. But lets ignore these also-rans to focus back upon Android. How does it eclipse the iPhone by July? By maintaining its past relative growth percentage of 16%! The Apple iPhone App Store is growing at just 6%, in part because Apple isn’t throwing open the floodgates to ringtones and wallpapers masquerading as apps, and isn’t welcoming scores of new waves of Fart Apps.

The supposedly separate iPad App Store is growing at 12%, likely because the iPhone market is relatively well filled out and the iPad is relatively new. Again, by taking the iPad out (while leaving Honeycomb tablets in), Android can claim impressive growth numbers, and you can draw a predictive line suggesting that Android will be in knocking distance of the iPhone App Store library this summer (again, only if you exclude iPad apps, which Distimo itself estimates will balloon to more than 102,000 titles by that time.

If you separate Apple’s (Distomo-projected) 371,675 iPhone apps from the 102,690 iPad apps, things look flattering for the potential 332,114 Android apps that should be available by July. Again, these aren’t separate figures, they’re more statistical hoop jumping along the lines of IDC and Gartner insisting that toy 5 inch netbooks are PCs while the iPad isn’t, the only possible way that those companies can flex their number twisting skills to denigrate Apple and make broadly licensed platforms look more attractive than they are.

Is bigger, better?

Mac users have long voiced a concern that were their platform to get much larger, it might start suffering from the same malware and spammer ills as Windows. While there is some basis for concern in that regard, smartphones are a little different, because with the iPhone, Apple developed a secure software channel that prevents unauthorized software from being installed, sharply curtailing any potential for the spread of malicious code.

The iPhone thus became about as difficult to target as game consoles, which are widely deployed but rarely fall victim to exploits. Apple also made it very easy to distribute rapid patches for security flaws, and has worked to keep iOS up to date. There have been no significant malware incidents related to the iOS, despite an installed base of almost 189,000,000 devices, which is around 6 times larger than the installed base of Macs and about a fifth of the global installed base of Windows PCs. There certainly isn’t a fifth of the viruses of Windows on the iOS platform.

Android devices have a smaller installed base, because Apple’s number includes iPod touch and iPads, and Apple has been selling more iPhones for longer. It’s hard to say exactly how many Android devices are out there with certainty, but lets assume Android is just a little smaller, and catching up (at least in smartphones, where it is currently collectively outselling the iPhone).

Android has been hit with regular malware exploits, ranging from broad collection of user data by “not necessarily malicious” Android Market apps to clear malware attacks from apps on alternative stores (as side-loading is permitted by most Android models) to even direct, malicious, damaging exploit incidents by apps in the official Android Market. Google’s only response to this is to delist (and in some cases, remotely kill) apps that are known to be malicious. It does nothing to approve apps in the first place. Android Market is a dangerous place.

Google rewarms Android Market, still half baked next to iPhone App Store
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Google “not happy” with slow Android app sales
Android Malware Sees Explosive Growth | PCWorld

Size is not the problem Google needs to address

But that’s not the extent of Android’s problems. There’s a huge rash of intellectual property theft. One can argue that buyers don’t care if Disney’s or Nintendo’s trademarks are being misused, but the reality is that if you search for something in Android Market, you’ll be hard pressed to find the real thing because for every legitimate title there are scores of shovelware garbage pretending to be affiliated with Angry Birds or Disney princesses or iTunes.

That is a problem for users, and it’s also a problem for developers. Why create something new for Android if it’s only going to be ripped off and buried by tons of shovelware weeds competing for attention?

Even in cases where legitimate, significant developers have brought their titles to Android Market, the quality of their apps is rarely on par with their iOS equivalents. Android apps look poor and unrefined. They’re less likely to be updated or accorded all the features of their iOS cousins. It’s the poor man’s dump market. That’s not going to change just because Android licensees dump out a million more handsets and shovelware developers load up another few tons of ringtones and wallpaper apps requesting to use location data and display ads. It’s simply going to get worse.

Absolute size is not the problem facing Android Market. Boasting a larger volume of free titles by July (when excluding the iPad to engage in hysterical statistical acrobatics) is not going to fix Google’s quality problem. GM isn’t a fine car maker just because it pooped out lots of models and has generated a large aftermarket for seat covers and sun shades. The simple reality is that Apple has nothing to worry about in the App Market but pleasing its own customers.

Rather than trying to postulate where Android’s shovelware freebee pile will be by July, how about we pick a date when Google decides to drop Android’s Java-like platform entirely and convert its mobile business model to a web centric Chrome OS one instead? I’m betting that should happen by 2013.

  • gus2000

    Oh please. Everyone knows that the Android Market is *open*, which overshadows any and all deficits. Hey, that malware stole all your private info and bricked your phone, but at least it was open malware.

    Death before walled gardens!

  • warlock7

    This is the real question everybody should be asking:
    “…when Google decides to drop Android’s Java-like platform entirely and convert its mobile business model to a web centric Chrome OS one instead?”

    When will the Oracle/Java behemoth crush the Google thieves? I really do hope to see Larry Ellison get his wish and see all copies of the Android OS destroyed. It would serve them right for stealing like the Microsoft of the nineties.

  • John E

    good post. one point in Google’s favor tho is that most of the good iOS apps do get ported to Android too. yes they may have more ads, or be slightly compromised in design due to Android fragmentation, but the functionality is there. and Android does support convenient widget apps, which Apple has yet allow.

    it will be interesting to see if Android can support universal apps for both smartphone and tablet formats like iOS does now.

    the Chrome OS point at the end may be prescient. Android really may not survive all the patent suits. it will take a few years to be resolved, but one day there will be a decision and Google could lose. having Chrome OS supplant Android in that event may already be secret plan.

  • nextguy

    gus2000, maybe if apple actually screen their apps, Steve Jobs wouldn’t be pissed off at the fact that the ipad was confirmed before release.

    The walled garden is a lie.

  • jmfree

    As always, Daniel, well said in the face of hype from elsewhere in the blogosphere.

    The shameful pile of trash that is the Android marketplace is what ultimately drove me from the Droid (two successive models) into the arms of the iPhone 4 (on the horrendously expensive Verizon network, when they finally got around to it).

    The freetard world that worships at the altar of anything free misses the point. Dollar cost is just the very teeny tip of the iceberg of the personal economy.

    We have entered the age of the “attention economy”, where people loathe wasting their time on stuff that doesn’t work — because heightened competition and expectations cause them to believe (often correctly) that there is an alternative one click away that works just fine. The cost of my time and attention actually supersedes a dollar cost — especially when we are talking about 99 cents or $2.99.

    Taking that just a little further, if I must choose between a) spending a couple of hundred dollars or b) wasting days or weeks of my time being irritated and lied to, which do we think today’s consumers might conclude is a better choice?

    I mean, there’s a reason most people would rather enjoy the heat from natural gas than go out and split wood twice a day.

    For the post-depression generation (1930s forward), dollars seemed comparatively scarce and time cheap. The opposite is true today, even to those with little disposable income — it is practically unthinkable to just about anyone not to have a mobile phone, even if the expense only results in a relatively trivial convenience.

    Thinking of time and attention as the most valuable resource we have explains why half-hearted and scatterbrained efforts like Android will simply disappear, as they deserve to.

  • ronhip

    … “GM isn’t a fine car maker just because it pooped out lots of models and has generated a large aftermarket for seat covers and sun shades.” …

    Maybe so, but GM just produced the Volt. Possibly one of the most Apple-like products a car manufacturer could possibly conceive. And given the waiting list to buy one, it also reminds me of lines around the block at Apple stores to buy a quality product! It just took a visionary at both companies to figure out that making products that PEOPLE want rather than what the bean-counting spreadsheet-wielding MBAs want will drive sales.

  • http://themacadvocate.com TheMacAdvocate

    Very well thought-out as usual, Dan. I did think that, in addition to the Market’s inability to compete with the App Store qualitatively, there were also some questionable statistical practices.


  • relativity

    “To be fair, Distimo is just trying to drum up attention for itself by generating sensational headlines attached to its name.” -Dan

    Maybe so but reality may not be far behind. I do agree that the spit and polish of both the Chrome and Android App Markets doesn’t yet match the fluid experience of iOS App stores via desktop iTunes.

    But having seen what people can do with the new frameworks for HTML5/CSS3 like WebGL and Canvas I believe that web UIs will eventually match that of iTunes UI.

    Apple is reportedly moving in this direction too (hint: iCloud?) and will have a web-centric iTunes mechanism for cloud sync and streaming. No more unnecessary tie-ins with Mac desktops.

    App numbers are like market share numbers. They are meaningless as both platforms can do pretty much the same. The one that really matters will come down to which platform satisfies one’s needs and what price. The Mac-vs-PC anecdote is a good example, as you pointed out.

    Use the right tool that does the job. How the tool does it’s thing is up to the user’s erstwhile subjectivities.

  • thibaulthalpern

    Loved reading this analysis!

    Daniel, I wonder if you have interest at all to write an article or two about how the iPad/iPod/iPhone devices can be improved, and and article or two about how the iPad/iPod/iPhone + iTunes ecosystem can be improved. Now, I don’t know if that is up your alley because I don’t recall you have too much to say in terms of the finer points of design but given how astute you are with your Android & iOS analysis, I thought perhaps there are some design points you might want to suggest and encourage Apple to make.

    Anyhow, my only comment about this article actually is wondering why Distimo wrote its report in such a way. Why are some reporters so eager to hear an “Android is winning and beating up Apple” story so much?

    Time and time again, I’m baffled that so many analysts and bloggers cannot get out of the childish mentality that there can be only one success story in the smartphone and tablet markets. Are these mostly young men whose model of the world is either to conquer it all and reign as Lord or to give up? Markets do not only have to have one success stories. Many markets have multiple success stories. In the land to television, Sony isn’t the only success story. Others like LG and Samsung are also.

  • gslusher

    “Again, according to Distimo (but not highlighted in its press releases), Apple’s App Store has 211,369 paid apps while Android Market has just 71,801.”

    The chart shows Android with slightly more paid apps than the iPhone.

  • gslusher

    “The chart shows Android with slightly more paid apps than the iPhone.”

    OOPS! Sorry, I can’t even read the chart. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. I had to blow up the graphic to see the tiny print at the bottom.

  • kdaeseok

    Developers make Android apps because (and only because) they are profitable to do so. Angry Birds or Pocket Legends for example, The developers earn more from its free Android version than iOS ones.
    In addition, ‘the gap’ between these two OSes isn’t as big for some people as you think. It all comes down to one’s need. The best way to watch BBC on your mobile? BBC iplayer app. The difference between iOS and Android version? None.
    iOS might be winning, but so is Android.