Amazon takes first Android Appstore steps

Plenty of alternatives to Google's Android Market already exist, but Amazon's Appstore is a much bigger force to be reckoned with in the complicated Android world.

Amazon is inviting Android app developers to sell software through its store.
Amazon is inviting Android app developers to sell software through its store. Amazon

Amazon.com has invited programmers to submit Android applications for sale through the company's upcoming app store, a move that marks the arrival of a new and very different player in an increasingly complicated Android world.

The Amazon Appstore is a notable, if expected , arrival. Amazon has a long track record in e-commerce, with tens millions of customers already signed up, strong promotional abilities to recommend relevant products, and a successful expansion into electronic books through its Kindle program. And it's got a very different pricing strategy compared with rival stores: Amazon will set the price tag customers see.

Amazon's scale means its store likely will be much more of a force for developers to reckon with than smaller app store alternatives to Google's official Android Market, such as AppBrain, MobiHand, SlideME, AndSpot, and GetJar.

And, of course, Amazon's store means Android is getting a notch more complicated for developers.

First, Google steadily adds new programming interfaces and abilities to its incarnations of the Android operating system. Second, manufacturers often add their own software variations in areas such as keyboards, search engines, and home screen interfaces. Third, hardware varies significantly, with different screen sizes, processing power, physical or touch-screen keyboards, built-in or removable memory, and assorted button layouts and options.

With new app stores, software distribution adds another dimension of complexity. Programmers not only will have to test their software on different devices but also choose which app stores to offer it in. It's no surprise that middlemen see a business opportunity--Adobe Systems' InMarket service is one example--to try to ease the process of app store interaction.

A very different app store
Amazon will be a very different app store from what's come before. Perhaps the biggest change: though developers suggest a "list price," Amazon will set actual application pricing, according to TechCrunch. Bafflingly, that point is not detailed in Amazon's Appstore FAQ.

According to Amazon's developer license agreement, "For each sale of an app, we will pay you a royalty equal to the greater of (i) 70 percent of the purchase price or (ii) 20 percent of the list price." And the list price may not be greater than what a developer sells an app for at other app stores.

To be sure, Amazon has a lot more experience setting prices than most software makers, including discounts and other promotional measures. But developers will need to have faith that Amazon will act in developers' interest as well as in Amazon's own.

Late yesterday, Amazon began inviting people to join its Appstore developer program--currently waiving the first year of the $99 annual fee. The Amazon Appstore is set to launch later this year, Amazon told TechCrunch.

Android has become a major force in the mobile market, with 300,000 new phones being activated daily in December, according to Google. The operating system is spreading from phones to tablets to Google TV products--several of each showing up at the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas--as well as to other types of devices.

Perhaps significantly, the Amazon Appstore omits the word "Android" from its name. According to the FAQ, applications must work on Android 1.6 or later, but it's not hard to imagine Amazon expanding to offer apps for other devices if manufacturers permit it.

Middle-ground approach to control
Amazon will test applications before approving them for sale in the Appstore. The company looks to be choosing a middle ground between Google's relatively laissez-faire Android Market and Apple's more controlled App Store. According to the FAQ:

Our goal is for Amazon Appstore customers to have a good experience with every app they buy from the Appstore. As a result, we will be testing the apps you submit prior to making them available in our store to verify that each app works as outlined in your product description, does not impair the functionality of the mobile device or put customer data at risk once installed, and complies with the terms of the distribution agreement and our content guidelines. For clarity, our intent is not to be prescriptive in terms of what constitutes good app design. Amazon is a big believer in innovation in general, and we hope to feature many creative and innovative apps in the Appstore.

What's not immediately clear is how widely Amazon will test applications for compatibility with the full range of Android devices. Kindle books can be read on any Kindle device or Kindle app, but Android applications have a more complicated set of compatibility dependencies.

Amazon also clearly wants a certain level of maturity among developers. According to the program's license agreement, developers must "provide reasonable technical and product support for apps as requested by end users or us....At a minimum you will respond within 24 hours to any support request that we identify as critical, and in all other cases within five business days of request from an end user or us."

The most obvious comparison to this ever-more-complex Android ecosystem is what Apple has done with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Apple offers comparatively few hardware choices and only the single App Store both for developer submissions and for customer downloads. There are still compatibility issues with older products, and developers have complained loudly about Apple's app approval process, but it remains a less cluttered experience.

Of course, the relative chaos of the Android ecosystem can also be an asset. There are greater freedoms for those involved, which opens up avenues for innovation and business that may be inaccessible in a more controlled environment.

The Web has thrived despite lack of central authorities, and Google was born of the Web. As long as Google's motive with Android remains to spur mobile use of the Web and Google services rather than extracting licensing fees for an operating system, it seems likely the Android world will remain chaotic.

Updated at 6 a.m. PT with correct number of Android activations.

 

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