One of the primary attractions of the Android operating system is the potential for a vibrant developer community to create a mass of useful apps allowing users to squeeze a little more usefulness from their mobile experience. As I've learned during my prerelease testing of the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 with Google, there may not yet be a lot of action in the formal application distribution channel, but there are some gems already there to liven up the Android experience.
Taking a cue from Apple and its AppStore for the iPhone, Google has created its own one-stop shop for Android applications, called the Android Market. Available as a preinstalled application on the G1, users can immediately begin browsing the Market directly from the device either over Wi-Fi or a cellular data connection.
At the time of my testing, there weren't any for-pay applications, so I can't speak to the quality or security of the buying process, but I can testify that downloading and installing some of the free apps was a really simple proposition. Just browse the store, click "install," review what rights the application will have on the device once installed, and that's it—you are ready to roll. The information screen for each application provides a brief rundown of what the app does, shows user ratings and reviews, and provides a bit of detail about other work the developer has done (as well as a way to contact him or her).
I particularly liked Task Switcher, a small application that helps take advantage of Android's process management capabilities. As noted in my review of the G1, Android users don't close applications, instead just switching away from them. Android keeps processes open in the background, closing little used processes only when system resources are needed for other things. Task Switcher let me easily access those applications running in the background, giving me an -like functionality to switch between running applications.
Barcode Scanner is also proving useful (to my girlfriend). This application lets me scan a bar code using the built-in 3.0-megapixel camera—the application doesn't take a picture, but instead requires me to just hover the red line shown on the screen over the bar code until it is recognized. Then I (she) can compare prices online—either at the Google Product Search site or via a Web search.
For my tastes, I preferred some of the entertainment options in the Market. Shazam is there, letting me sample a snippet of a song to identify the name of the tune and artist via an online database. And Video Player fills a sorely needed hole in the G1, letting me play MPEG4 video files from the MicroSD card.
One thing that Google has definitely changed for the better from Apple's approach to running an application store (certainly from the developer's perspective, but for the consumer it remains to be seen) is the role of the company takes in monitoring the content in the store.
By now, anyone who cares about these things is well aware that Apple takes an iron fist approach, subjecting developers to a two-stage vetting process before applications get the Apple seal of approval. There's a technical evaluation—presumably to make sure that the application doesn't interfere with the iPhone's core services—that each and every application (and every version of application) must pass before entering the store. And there appears to be a major logjam waiting to clear this hurdle. Then there is also Apple's stealthier, subjective content evaluation for which there appear to be few rules. Applications can be denied or, for those already in the AppStore, pulled for issues of content, usefulness, competitiveness and whatever else Apple deems best in the interest of the store (and Apple).
Google, on the other hand, is going out of its way to make sure everyone understands it doesn't want to be the arbiter of what is decent or appropriate. It says so right in the Android Market Terms of Service, Section 3.9:
"Google reserves the right (but shall have no obligation) to pre-screen, review, flag, filter, modify, refuse or remove any or all Products from the Market. However, you agree that by using the Market you may be exposed to Products that you may find offensive, indecent, or objectionable and that you use the Market at your own risk."
If the Market winds up becoming a free-for-all zone, where developers unleash their wildest dream applications without much attention paid to quality or stability, the user comments and reviews will therefore become the de facto measurement stick for an application's usability, allure and stability. If this Wild West scenario comes to pass, it will be exciting to see whether this kind of crowd-sourced arbitration can pass muster on a large scale, to see whether the applications and developers can prosper amidst the dampening effects of flames, trolls and uninitiated opinion without at least a little bit of comment moderation.