Google’s New Year’s Resolution should be cleaning up the Play Store to ensure Android’s future

Daniel Bader

January 1, 2013 2:51pm

Some time last week I was looking through the Google Play Store, browsing the less frequented categories such as “Top New Free” and “Trending”. As someone who frequently reviews apps, there are some gems to be found along the perimeter of the Android market.

Recently, though, I have encountered two troubling trends in the Play Store, both of which Google needs to find better ways of preventing. One is outright illegal; the other is merely wretched.

The first involves a lack of, shall we say, editorial oversight in the publishing of apps. Developers can and do mimic the intellectual property of other companies, often purveying unreleased and highly desirable games that bear little if no resemblance to their official counterparts. Within this category I found the above app, GTA 5, published by a company as much in common with Rockstar Games as I have to the Prime Minister. The game steals screenshots from the yet-unreleased game and even pilfers its logo from Rockstar’s marketing materials.

Despite being published today the “ad-supported” game has already hauled in over 10,000 downloads, though it’s clear that what users are downloading has nothing to do with the actual project whatsoever. It’s possible, too, that the game was initially published as something else and the developer has since made changes to the name and the art, but the issue is no less alarming. Multiple people, including me, have reported the app as fraudulent, but it still exists on the Play Store at the time of writing. Not only does this muddle Rockstar’s reputation as a publisher of quality Android games, but it undermines the idea of the Play Store as a trustworthy distributor of apps. I’m sure it will eventually be taken down — it is apparently a low-quality puzzle game of some sort — but the damage has already been done. There are thousands of examples of fake games on the Play Store, though the issue is certainly not limited to Google’s ecosystem. But with Apple and Microsoft vetting individual apps before publication, at least there is some measure of quality control; Android provides none at all, unless of course malware is discovered in the APK itself.

The next issue I’ve found is one that took me quite by surprise. I found an app in the “Top New Free” section called Vintage Camera. With a promising rating above 4.0 and a good list of features, I eagerly downloaded the app to see if it was worth writing about. When I opened it for the first time, however, I was greeted with the above License Agreement. Many apps require that you give up some of your privacy, either through sharing of information with third parties or contribution to marketing research through anonymous usage statistics. This is the first Android app that I can recall to take a page out of Windows shareware software and actually alter the operating system. This is only possible because Android apps are less sandboxed than their iOS or Windows Phone counterparts; when you install an app you may permit it to run in the background or change system settings. That is what makes the OS so powerful and so potentially open to exploitation.

In agreeing to Vintage Camera’s License Agreement you allow the app, which likely teamed with a digital marketing company, to add a search icon to your home screen, add a bookmark to your browser and change the default search engine of your browser. While these seem relatively harmless at first, it sets a terrible precedent for future app developers, especially since this app has garnered so much interest in the past month. It’s also an insidious way to degrade the user experience: imagine a relative notice to Android suddenly opening his or her browser to a modified home page which is likely riddled with ads and promotions for other apps.

But, you may say, many search companies, Google included, bundled those awful toolbars with free or ad-supported apps in the mid-’00s. Yes, they did, and they continue to litter the ever-shortening vertical space of your parents’ 17-inch CRT monitor to this day. Browser toolbars left a tasteless legacy that has since been supplanted by gentler forms of marketing. Android runs the risk of becoming inundated with such eyesores unless Google puts a stop to it. The company already altered its developer policies in August, promising to do away with spammy and malicious apps. Yet here are two examples among many, hiding in plain sight.

Google has done well for itself in 2012. It has furthered Android’s success, brought a great number of quality apps to iOS, and has shown off the evolution of its core products with Google Now and the Knowledge Graph. But Android is still stigmatized with stories of rampant malware and fake apps.

Users need to smarten up, too: if GTA 5 isn’t even available for the PS3 and Xbox, why would it be available, for free, on Android?

  • 2c

    RIP RIM!!!!! :D :D

    • 2c

      Android has no future.

    • john bicknell

      But I don’t want to eat BlackBerry’s and Apple’s every day for dinner.

  • bb10

    is this bb10?

    • Scientist

      Yes, it is BB 10.And you are a Moron.

  • MER1978

    Apple’s New Year’s resolution should be to stop acting like a b***h. :D

  • Akshay Pall

    They need to got more Nexus 4/10s to the market!

    • Louis

      Yes! And while they’re at it, can they please ban crappy OEM overlays?

  • Alex

    No wonder Android already has antiviruses to make a sense of this mess.

    • Tom

      The problems in this post are unrelated to anti-virus. Normal users have no need of 3rd party anti-virus on Android.

      Further I think that the second problem described in the post is not a problem at all. Android doesn’t allow this to do done surupticiously – as happens on Windows. I would never use an app like that, but to each their own.

      One the other hand, I agree with the general idea of the post – there are more steps that Google could take to ‘clean up’ the play store without changing its open nature.

  • hotcar

    nice article, i have found a lot of fake apps too so lets hope google fixes this issue

    • monsterduc1000

      The best thing to do before you download an app is read the comments. They will tell you what the app is really about. I generally never get an app if it is brand new on the market. I usually wait for some feedback to come in.

  • jellmoo

    Developers that use these sorts of tactics are preying on the same sort of people that tend to fall victim to things like email or Facebook scams. People that are maybe less tech savvy and have their very first device. Considering how cheap and easy to get a lot of Android devices are, coupled with a far more lax verification system for apps, it’s easy to see how they are able to worm their way in.

    It’s a slippery slope for Google though. They can’t get too strict without infringing on their “open” mentality, or without making it more difficult for devs to get their apps in. There is something to be said for a 2 day turnaround on app submission, especially when compared to the potential 30 day turnaround from Apple. But, part f the side effect is that users do need to be more vigilant with what they install on an Android device.

    Could Google do a better job? Absolutely. But I think they are walking a very fine line here, and need to carefully weigh their options before moving to a stricter, more involved model.

    • Louis

      Strict is really what Google needs to do if they wish to improve Android’s user experience. They can still remain open by allowing 3rd party stores, but Google Play must live up to a higher standard. Google must make sure that open equate to low quality.

  • Louis

    This is yet another example of how both Windows Phone and iOS are far superior architecturally. Because of the sandboxed nature of iOS and WP it is just about impossible for any application downloaded from official stores to modify any other application. Furthermore, Apple and Microsoft (especially Apple) seem to have significantly stricter guidelines for their respective application stores. This results in a far superior user experience.

    It really is crazy that Google developed a 21st century operating system without proper sandboxing. Android is a great operating system but it still has a long way to go. In the next few years Google must tighten up rules on the Play Store, have better application isolation, introduce a closed file system for better user experience and improve Android’s user interface guidelines so that you don’t have developers making up their own UI designs that confuse users.

    • Dalex

      Or, and here’s a crazy idea, but they could not transform their OS into yet another walled garden. IOS and WP are already available on the market for the people that want them. With what, over 70% market share, I don’t think Google has too much to worry about. Ruining the open nature of Android would be a horrible mistake and a giant fu to the insane number of people using it.

      If people are dumb enough to download an app called GTA5, when the game isn’t even out as Daniel pointed out, they deserve their fate.

    • mlander

      Dalex said: “If people are dumb enough to download an app called GTA5, when the game isn’t even out as Daniel pointed out, they deserve their fate.”

      Dalex, while I don’t entirely disagree, many of us reading this blog are the ones who get to clean up the mess… And usually without payment. YMMV.

    • Thomas

      Comparing iOS and WP to Android is like comparing consoles and gaming PCs. Many people, myself included, place high value on flexibility and openness and will live with the associated flaws/costs.

      I happen to enjoy having unrestricted access to my phone file system, the same way I enjoy customization and modding on my gaming PC.

      The casual non-savvy user would definitely be better off with a WP or an iPhone, no arguing with that. But for the other types of users, there really is no existing alternative to Android (unless you count MeeGo and future Linux-based entrants).

  • KidAndroid

    Any app that makes you agree to a licence agreement before using I delete immeditely & everyone should because they are 95% bullshit. This is a great article & Ill definitely be sharing it across the webisphere ;-)

  • Captain67

    Daniel sounds pretty angry in this post. Must be hungover from new years eve drinking.

  • truther

    BB Z10?

  • d

    While I appreciate Daniel’s comments and think he is on the money here, I have to say that this blog is looking more like a clone of Android Police every day. I mean they just pushed out an editorial about all the changes the play store needs, and usually they will have the same stories about new phone, app, and other Android news a few hour to a day earlier.

    Maybe Mobile Syrup can make a new years resolution to be more original in selection of content for next year? The truth is, I would love a way to just subcribe to Canadian carrier news without the platform material.

  • The real 2c from howardforums

    Why is everyone giving me thumbs down? I only speak the truth about RIM. RIM is dead. RIP RIM!!!!! :D :D

  • TouchMyBox

    The google play app store thing is disappointing. Let’s take a look at another company who faced this challenge last year: Valve Software. It took Valve less than a week to clean up their greenlight service and introduce a way of preventing people from submitting trash. You’d think Google with all of their resources would be able to figure out an elegant solution. While you’d have to be pretty stupid to download GTA V for your Galaxy S III, I often see Infinity Blade II and other iOS-exclusive games listed on the Play Store and I end up doing a double-take before shaking my head in disapproval and hitting the report button.

  • Slype

    For the few Apple fans in here touting the superiority of your chosen relig..err OS, I would hope that you realize that not everyone likes to eat oatmeal everyday and we do not all like to wear hazmat suits. Some of us like the openess of the Android platform and while this may invite some downsides, the upsides more than offset it.

    Consequently, the iOS and Windows platforms are not bulletproff either and to act in such a fashion does a disservice to regular users because you give are the people who are giving Apple a bad image with elitist and snobbish attitudes.

    As for Daniel’s article, I find it great that he is willing to critique Google’s store and have other open minded people debate it. I’m of the opinion that Google needs to tighten up the store a bit but to let the users figure self-regulate as well to a certain extent instead of being told what is good for us.

    • DroidSheep

      Despite this obvious and significant flaw of GooglePlay, you continue to stick up for them. Who is the one drinking too much Google kool-aid now? One of the big aspects of a mobile OS is their online app stores and if Google can’t fix up this glaring mistake, users will get fed up an move onto something else. It may not be a problem for you at this stage, because it is in its infancy, but it will only get worse. As an example of how important online apps are to a mobile OS, just take a look at Symbian an thir failed online app store. Nokia had great phones, a flexible and stable OS, but terrible online apps.

    • Thomas

      Amen, bro.

      Better way to see it: Android is to iOS/WP, what gaming PCs are to consoles.

      There are advantages and disadvantages and some people, myself included, will recognize and live with the flaws in return for features we need.

      I actually hope that the casual less savvy users currently on lower end Androids all switch to WP and leave the rest of us be so that stuff can be tailored to our needs more effectively without a boatload of whining.

  • Hardened

    Daniel,

    Great research!! I’ve bombed you about 2wks ago for another article and rightfully so. THIS article shows your mettle and has proper research and insight into your topic … I expect nothign less from MobileSyrup going forward and I applaud you for picking up your game! Thank you.

    A possible solution for APK’s is to not only alert the user to accept access to private info, system changes, but have it in basic view with Toggle Switches to what it changes
    example: Bookmarks, Contacts, etc , and yet a more detailed view expansion to specific fine tune what it has access to – BlackBerry OS was great with this, if not annoyingly excuted. Hopefully Google engineers have a better solution.

  • Brad F, Brad F(anboy), jack

    I love this!

    “You give people, who are using Apple, a bad image of elitist and snobbish attitudes.”

  • Jimmy

    Android is The Best. no matter What. Not iOS, Windows, Blackberry. Android will come out on top some way some how no matter what.

  • UD

    I honestly think Google should stop running in the race to increase their score of the total number of apps they have in their store and make sure that apps are verified properly before they hit the store. Google someway would have expected or knew what kind of apps they are receiving from developers and maybe just to go higher than Apple in total number of apps, they missed the part of spams, viruses and other stuff which exploit their privacy.

  • mmathieum

    Google is not going to cleanup the Google Play store more than it has cleanup Google Search or YouTube over the past decade(s?).
    If you see pirated content on Google Play, report it.

    The best example is that the fake GTA 5 shown in this article photo is not available anymore.