“Gasp!” went the collective Internet on Wednesday when the IDG News Service spotted a clause in the terms of service for Google’s Android Market stating that:
Google may discover a product that violates the developer distribution agreement … in such an instance, Google retains the right to remotely remove those applications from your device at its sole discretion.
In other words, Google has a built-in “kill switch” to remotely disable applications that violate their developer agreement.
While the terms of this agreement certainly seem reasonable, tech critics thought back to February, when Apple explained its own terms of service for the iPhone, which also seemed reasonable at the time. As we know, Apple’s developer agreement turned out to be much more trouble than initially anticipated, causing a storm of criticism around the developer NDA and Apple’s disqualification of apps that “duplicated functionality” of other Apple applications.
Apple hasn’t deleted any apps that have made their way onto iPhones. But it did make trouble for a developer when the author of the controversial Podcaster application decided to distribute his application via the iPhone’s “ad hoc” back channel, originally intended for developers to do beta testing with a limited number of users. Not surprisingly, Apple closed this distribution channel to him as well. As a result, some fear has been spreading that Google might also pursue similarly obnoxious policies. However, this fear is unjustified here, and, in fact, I would go so far as to say that Google’s kill switch is actually a good move.
The main difference between these two tech giants is in their respective models of application distribution. Google made an extremely smart decision in its development of Android and the ways users can install applications, by doing what Apple should have done all along. An Android user has the Android Market, while an iPhone user has the App Store. But if an owner of an Android phone decides not to use the Market, this user need only visit another site with Android applications to install anyr mobile app outside of Google’s purview.
To put it bluntly, Android has a multitude of possible channels for the distribution of apps. The iPhone does not. This functionality is built right into Android and isn’t the weekend project of some particularly clever hacker. Furthermore, keep in mind that this kill switch will only affect apps distributed through the Market, not those installed from the Web. This should make Google’s intentions very clear.
Google intends to have its Android Market be the central repository for the vast majority of mobile app distribution. Their oversight will provide users a reservoir of safe, trusted apps under the promise that they have been checked for quality, much like the promise of the App Store. However, should folks decide to completely forgo the Android Market, they may do so easily. We can also assume that Google will provide multiple incentives for people to use the Market versus using the Web, such as making the install process much, much easier. And Google promises to be an advocate for its consumers by offering to go after problematic developers for the money fraudulently paid by Android customers in the Market .
Most people, undoubtedly, will just use the Android Market. Think of it as a highly incentivized opt-in model, where the Market gives people the peace of mind that Google is overseeing the apps, but the knowledge that they could easily move elsewhere.
Imagine if Apple had taken the same strategy, and created an App Store that was the best place to get iPhone apps, instead of the only place. I guarantee that most of the heat the company has gotten over their policies would never have happened, even the initial criticism surrounding the kill switch.
Some of you may protest, however, that the iPhone does have another channel for distributing applications: jailbreaking. I will admit that jailbreaking your iPhone, or iPod Touch in my case, offers you a great selection of quality apps, many of which offer functionality well beyond the capabilities of the official SDK. However, jailbreaking is nowhere near the same as Android’s native third-party distribution model.
First of all, jailbreaking your iPhone is very risky. The talented coders at the iPhone dev team admit that jailbreaking incurs substantial risk, despite how dead simple the process now is. All it takes is one corrupt file during installation, and suddenly your shiny, new iPhone is unbootable.
As with all aspects of Android, another factor to consider is the openness of the platform. Should Google decide to extend its hands into third-party apps by enabling the kill switch on all installed apps, then you can bet that someone will find a way to turn it off. In fact, the entire third-party app distribution network is going to make the process of developing for Android much easier than the iPhone. Easy installation methods lead to easy distribution and quick feedback from users during beta testing, which in turn leads to faster development cycles. This will be a killer feature, especially considering how far Google has to go to catch up to Apple in courting developers.
Overall, I would compare Google’s decision to remotely disable troublesome apps more to its malware detection service than to Apple’s kill switch. As Google catalogs the web and stumbles upon what it thinks are malicious web sites, it has recently started presenting users with notification of these sites in search results. As upsetting as it may be for the owners of sites that are false positives, we all agree that we don’t mind that little extra bit of protection from Google. After all, when push comes to shove, we can still click the link if we want to.