The former king of smartphones, RIM, has been having trouble getting its fledgling PlayBook OS off the ground, even going so far as to build a system for running Android apps on the platform. This effort hasn’t exactly turned things around for RIM, which is still seeing the PlayBook falter in the market. In fact, the high rate of Android app piracy on its platform has resulted in a large volume of complaints from developers.
The solution, according to RIM VP Alec Saunders is to remove sideloading of third-party apps, which RIM is going to do in an upcoming software update. According to Saunders, RIM is making this move to avoid creating a “chaotic cesspool” like the Google Play Store. If it’s true for RIM, are Android developers suffering from excessive piracy because of sideloading on Android as well? Could Google disable sideloading and see a new renaissance for apps?
Impact on Android
If Google decided to end sideloading on Android, it would certainly make it more difficult to pirate apps — that is not in dispute. However, it would also hinder quite a lot of legitimate uses of the platform. Amazon’s Appstore for Android relies entirely on sideloading, which is why some early AT&T Android devices did not work with Amazon. Moving to seal up Android like a drum would more than likely result in a lawsuit from Amazon.
We would also see fabulous things like the Android Humble Bundle go extinct. The Humble Bundle is a pack of games for Android and other platforms that is sold as a batch of standalone APKs with most of the profits donated to charity. The folks behind this initiative only recently added support for Android, and killing sideloading would be the end of that.
A great many users would also likely be perturbed by the elimination of sideloading. Android allows you to backup applications and store the APK files for a rainy day. Without sideloading, those files aren’t good for anything. People in some regions, like China, where the Play Store is often blocked also rely heavily on the ability to sideload apps.
App developers, both professional and casual, would be hit hard as well. With the plethora of Android devices out there, developers need to test apps on a few different devices at the very least. Without sideloading, beta testing in the community would be impossible. Already cash-strapped developers would have to buy more devices for in-house testing.
Android is designed to allow application sideloading, and changing that would likely introduce more problems than it solves.
The community always wins
Even if Google agreed with RIM that sideloading was turning the Play Store into a cesspool, a hive of scum and villainy, or some other hyperbolic nonsense, killing sideloading wouldn’t stop people that actually want to pirate apps. Average Android users don’t even touch the system setting that enables sideloading. On the majority of phones, you will find that the Unknown Sources toggle is still un-checked.
Most Android users aren’t taking advantage of sideloading, and those that are won’t be stopped by the removal of the toggle. To see how this would go down, just look at another feature that users have unfortunately been denied access to: WiFi hotspot tethering.
Google announced wireless hotspot as a native Android feature back in mid-2010. The Nexus One had the feature, but virtually no other US devices have supported that feature natively. Carriers have almost universally removed free tethering from Android software builds in order to charge for their own services.
Not to be kept down, the community engineered various hacks to return the functionality, and every custom ROM (such as CyanogenMod) has native tethering. For anyone that needs hotspot and doesn’t want to pay, there are innumerable options to do so. Put simply, the carriers couldn’t do anything to stop determined individuals, and it would be the same story if sideloading was blocked.
Consider that even the iPhone, which has no supported method of sideloading apps, still sees rampant piracy. Check any torrent site on the internet and you will see batches of top iOS apps ready for download and installation on a jailbroken device. If iOS users are willing to go to these lengths to pirate apps, taking away sideloading on Android wouldn’t stop anyone on that side of the fence.
Android used to have standard DRM that developers could apply to their apps. This system would encrypt apps in the Android Market (as it was known at the time), and block them from unregistered devices. This DRM was cracked, of course, and regular users often had to deal with missing apps when new software updates weren’t properly identified with the Market.
Google moved to a remote authorization system in 2011 that is easier to manage, but still can be exploited. Even if Google were to perfect this system, and reduce piracy on Android by a huge margin, it’s not particularly likely that developers would see a big sales bump. As we’re fast learning, an instance of piracy doesn’t necessarily equate to a lost sale.
France codified a harsh three-strikes system into law last year, and has been serving suspected infringers with warning letters for some time now. The effort has definitely reduced the rate of piracy, but the entertainment industry hasn’t seen the uptick in sales it expected. Instead, revenues havecontinued to slide despite a roughly 66% drop in piracy.
Android apps get pirated, yes, but stopping sideloading would not end piracy. The folks out to pirate apps would still steal content, leaving the law-abiding users to be inconvenienced. Even if Android piracy could be reduced, there is no evidence that app sales would go up. Cesspool is obviously a strong term, but any negative effects originating from sideloading apps is just a consequence of how the platform works — and it’s a platform that’s doing quite well, cesspool or not.