Wednesday, August 25, 2010

App Licensing

For all those people telling me that Google's App Licensing would put a definitive stop to piracy on Android and that Apple should implement something similar, all I can say is: I told you you were wrong and here's proof, and it didn't take even as long as I said it would.

I understand Google has to address piracy because it's a bit of a black eye for the platform. They need third party developers, and a lot of third party developers are gun-shy about developing for a platform with a reputation for rampant piracy. Although the iPhone has its own problems with piracy, it's on a completely different scale. The closed nature of the platform is actually an advantage for third party developers, much the way gaming consoles are. Sure, Apple's protection scheme has been compromised and any App posted to the app store can be pirated easily. But, because only people who Jailbreak their phones can actually install the hacked software, and Jailbreaking a phone can cause problems with future updates from Apple, there's built-in damage control.

It also helps that you can buy App Store apps in every country where you can legally buy an iPhone. On Android, you can only buy apps in 13 countries, meaning people in other countries either have to do without paid apps, or have to pirate. There's built-in incentive in that system for people who might be perfectly willing to pay for an app to go pirate it. Google would get more for their piracy-battling dollar by expanding the paid markets than by implementing more hare-brained licensing schemes that won't ever make a dent in piracy.

I don't envy Tim Bray's task of having to try and reassure Android developers that this crack isn't a problem. Of course it's a problem. It's a problem the media industries have been fighting with since the dawn of digital content. The RIAA, MPAA, and media companies have invested millions, maybe even billions of dollars into various schemes that have failed to make much of a dent in piracy.

For those who think this App Licensing can ever work, you (much like the media industry) fail to grasp the inherent technical flaw with any kind of DRM. With DRM, you have to provide the legal purchaser with the content and with the key to unlock that content. No matter how sophisticated the stuff in-between, no matter how complex the lock, a sufficiently technically knowledgeable person who has the content and the key to unlocking it can find a way to free the content from its protection. On Android, once you've freed the content from its DRM, you can distribute it to anybody because of the ability to sideload applications. So on most Android phones right now, once a single copy of a program has been hacked, it's just as easy to pirate as it was without App Licensing.

With software, finding the balance between making it inconvenient to pirate (because you can't make it impossible) without overly inconveniencing your customers is hard. It's easier on a closed platform. That's not to say there aren't downsides to a closed platform — of course there are — but this is one of the clear advantages for third party developers. Truth be told, you simply can not stop the dedicated pirate, but a closed platform does deter the bulk of the pirates who can be diverted into paying customers by making it inconvenient. Best of all, it does it without affecting the legal purchasers, unlike most DRM.

When it comes down to it, the most effective way to stop piracy is to make it easy and convenient for as many people to buy content legally as is possible and to price it fairly. This is something Google clearly doesn't get, or else you'd be able to buy paid apps everywhere you can buy an Android phone.


Jyaif said...

That's not a completely honest conclusion. You know has well as I do that the 10 largest AppStores (US, Canada, UK, Germany...) result in more than 80% of the sales.
There's indeed a problem with Android, but it's not the number of countries supported.

David Pedigo said...


"Stopping" piracy is not realistically achievable, but reducing it by shifting some of the users of software from piracy to legitimate purchase would seem to be a pretty good way to reduce piracy. If the users that had no option to purchase were given that option, some percentage of them would be honest enough to purchase it. I think that was Jeff's point in his conclusion, and I agree.

Billy Gray said...

Jeff wrote:

On Android, you can only buy apps in 13 countries, meaning people in other countries either have to do without paid apps, or have to pirate. There's built-in incentive in that system for people who might be perfectly willing to pay for an app to go pirate it.

I'm asking because I don't know, but I thought that android apps could be distributed independently of the marketplace?

As such, are developers prevented by anything in the marketplace agreements from selling their software to android users independently?

Obviously, a huge disadvantage to have to maintain your own point-of-sale and delivery code. But if that's the case, couldn't someone build a better market place for android apps?

Not that it would solve the piracy problem, or the problem that one crack opens up all apps to piracy. But I'm just sayin', perhaps someone ought to build a better Android Store?

As an aside, I tend to think that fears of piracy are over-stated. People who will pay for software generally do, and people who won't, don't. There will always be some equivalent of Surfer Serials, we still get to make a good living doing this all the same.

Jack Axe said...


Your connecting implied developer disinterest in Android to piracy is both factually and logically incorrect.

You are factually incorrect in implying that developers aren't that interested in Android app development as proven by the exponential growth of the Android app store. Yes the apps can only be sold in a few countries via the app store, but you can sell them yourself in any country you choose. Google is not nearly as obsessed with protecting their 30% cut as Apple is. You are also factually incorrect in stating that the denial of side loading on the iPhone presents much of a barrier to app piracy. According to an article dealing with this exact issue earlier this year ( app piracy is a real and very serious problem in the iDevice ecosystem. Several makers of popular titles are reporting piracy rates from 75%-90%. Unlike Google, Apple has done nothing to address this issue. At least on Android if you're really that concerned with piracy you can roll your own DRM scheme, you can't on iPhone.

You are logically incorrect in connecting piracy to a primary motivating factor to interest in developing for a platform. If this were the case iDevices would be in a world of trouble (the barrier to piracy is pointing Safari at a webpage). The real primary motivating factor is market share. As more Android devices have come out and as more users have adopted them the developer interest has increased in making apps for Android proportional with this increase in market share.

I applaud Google for trying to do something about piracy although in the end it's a battle that can't be won. The best thing to do is make great apps and sell them to honest people.

Benoit Maison said...

I just don't believe piracy is the largest problem for Android (or iPhone) developers.

First, pirated installs are not the same thing as lost sales. A lot of "pirates" of would not have purchased anyway, they may have tried a lite version instead, or looked for a free alternative. Even users of pirated versions contribute to word-of-mouth spread, and we all know how important that is.

Second, not being able to sell apps everywhere. Sure, the largest markets are covered, but that's a lousy excuse. And what if you are building an app that is specific to one country?

Third, OS fragmentation is a serious problem that is not going away. Today, they still sell new phones running Android 1.6! Many phones are impossible to upgrade, with carriers and manufacturers blaming each other.

Finally, Google just published a tool to flood the Android market with even more subpar apps (

Those are the more serious problems, IMHO.

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