Android App Piracy Hurting Developers, Consumers: Survey

The Android Market is turning into the "Wild West" of app piracy. Android apps are easy to steal, and this hurts both developers and consumers, a new survey finds.

Android developers are encountering problems with software piracy due to the way Google has structured the Android Market, according to a recent report. This is not only hurting developers, but also the consumers who are buying Android-based smartphones and tablets.

In a survey of 75 Android developers, 52 percent claimed to have used some form of anti-piracy mechanisms in their applications, a Sept. 7 report from research firm Yankee Group found. In the same report, 62 percent of developers said they lost sales after implementing anti-piracy features, as "customers are not big fans of licensing systems or copy protections." About 82 percent of developers claimed implementing copy protection resulted in locking out users from applications that were legitimately purchased.

The survey also found that the majority of developers pointed to Google as the main problem; 54 percent of the respondents said Google was "too lax" in its Android Market policies.

"Android apps are living in the Wild West without a sheriff," said Carl Howe, the author of the Yankee Group report.

The burden of "thwarting" piracy largely falls on the application developers, Yankee Group found, and recommended that Google tighten up how it runs and polices Android Market. The recommendations included certifying alternate application markets, such as GetJar, Appia and Amazon Appstore, so that users can count on a certain standard of "trust and accounting" for all applications from that marketplace. Payment receipts that could be verified online can also be used to check that an application has been legitimately purchased. Finally, Yankee Group recommended code obfuscation to make it difficult for pirates to just repackage the application and other tamper checking mechanisms to protect applications.

Not all developers are seeing piracy as a problem, but it appears that some of the issues are intrinsically tied to how Android Market is structured.

About half the developers who responded to the survey perceived piracy as either a "huge problem" or "somewhat of a problem." More than 75 percent of Android developers in the survey said it was "easy" or "very easy" to copy an Android application and republish it as their own. Since Android applications are essentially Java applications compiled to run under the mobile operating system, pirates can easily decompile applications and distribute them under similar names on other marketplaces, the survey said. About a third of developers claimed piracy cost them more than $10,000 in revenue and support costs. A similar number claimed their support costs have increased as a direct result.

With five other mobile operating systems competing against each other, Google "can't afford" to ignore the problem of application piracy, according to Howe. If the developers are losing money, they are likely to "flee" to other platforms and stop developing for Android, Howe noted.

Google's License Validation Library (LVL) is supposed to allow developers to determine whether an application was acquired legitimately from the Android Market, but developers told researchers it was easy to defeat. To make LVL effective, developers had to obfuscate the code and use other techniques to prevent source-code tampering. In contrast, Apple uses binary machine code to compile applications that prevent pirates from easily changing and redistributing them, the survey found.

Software piracy is a big problem for applications that act as a background service, according to application developer SmartDyne in the report. If the user is in an area with high data rates or sporadic connectivity, they may deactivate the data connection, preventing the licensing service from connecting with the applications. A license key policy based on accounts or device IDs would help get around the problem, but would result in a "higher effort for every purchased app and, of course, higher costs," SmartDyne said.

Yankee Group worked with Skyhook, a mobile location data company, on the survey. The developers had a popular paid application in Google's Android Market and were scattered across 22 countries. Skyhook is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Google for excluding its geo-location system from Android devices. Yankee Group's Howe told ReadWriteWeb that researchers analyzed the raw data to ensure the data hadn't been skewed in light of Skyhook's ongoing dispute.