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Amazon Appstore for Android: Pros and Cons for Developers


September 16, 2011

Launched March 22, 2011, Amazon Appstore is still a relative newcomer in the field of stores for Android application developers. They distribute applications to all Android devices running 1.6 and higher (basically, every device available), provided that the device has enabled installation of applications from unknown sources. Until very recently, this requirement (enabling unknown sources) excluded a major US carrier; but no longer.

Amazon Appstore has a number of unique features compared with the more well-established Android Market, other competing Android app stores, and even other platforms. It's some of these same unique features and practices that have recently come under fire. Will they help or hurt you, the app developer, and the greater Android application marketplace in general? What about users? When do the unique features of Amazon Appstore work to our advantage, and when can they backfire?

Special Amazon Appstore Features for Android

So, what are some of these unique features we're talking about?

  • The ability to try apps before buying them
  • Various app discovery mechanisms including referrals and sophisticated app categories
  • Testing and trust
  • No officially listed return policy (or one that's easy to find)
  • Amazon-controlled customer pricing and the free daily paid app promotion

We'll cover each of these below. While this list isn't complete, it includes some of the most intriguing features of Amazon Appstore that are causing a bit of stir in the development community.

Amazon Appstore for Android Feature #1: Trying Apps Before Buying Them

The online storefront for Amazon Appstore has a feature where you can use an app right in your browser. They currently do this in an emulated environment running Android 2.2.1. This is a great way for users to try out games and applications before they buy them.


Amazon Appstore Test Drive
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Figure 1. Try Out Apps in a Web Emulator Before Buying Them with Amazon Appstore

Naturally, not all applications can be demonstrated in this way. Games, for example, may not perform as well or have as natural of controls. As such, not all apps are available in this way. Many free and paid apps, however, are.

The applications that are available, however, can be used in full for 30 minutes. To get more time, users can simply reload it. Data isn't saved, but maybe the users will get all they need out of this. This isn't unlike Android Market's return policy of 15 minutes, except it's not just one-time. In fact, it's more like when the return policy was 24 hours; many apps and games could be completed in that time. It's unclear who has ultimate control over what apps are available for Test Drive. Apps with advertising, or other usage based monetization, will do great.

Why not let the user download the app to their device and try it? Well, this didn't work well on Android Market. Users often used the app and then returned it for a full refund. This messed with developer's statistics and royalties. It was incredibly frustrating and developers felt exploited with no recourse. This is what makes the test drive feature of Amazon Appstore unique.

Amazon Appstore for Android Feature #2: Discovering Apps, Everywhere

Amazon is a very large online retail store with a diverse set of products for sale. As such, they have a sophisticated system for displaying related items to shoppers. Apps are now part of these item offerings. When a shopper is browsing various physical product categories, related apps may be shown. This puts the apps in front of the hundreds of millions of shoppers who use the Amazon site every month, regardless of whether they have an Android device yet, or not.

The apps are also organized into many more categories than they are on other markets. For example, Android Market has about eight categories of games (including Widgets and Live Wallpapers), whereas Amazon Appstore has sixteen categories.

In addition to a more precise level of organization, there are several sections for apps that are either created by the system or curated and edited by real people. These include lists of popular apps, featured apps and categories, and so on.

Amazon Appstore for Android Feature #3:Trust and Testing

Amazon has been around long enough, and has enough regular customers, that they've got loyal users. They've gained a level of trust and brand recognition. In order to continue to meet the desires of their customers, Amazon doesn't just let any app onto their app store. In fact, listing apps on the app store is not free; there's a $99 annual fee. This is similar to other competing mobile platforms, and is still a lower bar than older, legacy platforms required.

This aspect alone filters the applications available to users. However, Amazon also tests all apps they host in their store. According to their website, the tests include basic checks for malware, application usability, verification that the app doesn't interfere with the functionality of the device and does what it claims to do. This doesn't guarantee that accepted apps are bug free, but it does mean they have been reviewed before users get to download them.

However, looking through the reviews of many popular Android apps available on Amazon Appstore, there are often a very large percent of reviews that claim the app doesn't work on a particular user's device. This will often be consistent for a particular model. While we can't claim to know what's going on here, the testing doesn't seem to exhaustively check every Android device or platform that the Amazon Appstore supports. In addition, the controls for limiting which devices can download which apps either don't exist or isn't working as it should.

Amazon Appstore for Android Feature #4:Application Return Policy

What if you were one of the people to download a paid app that didn't work on your phone? Can you return it quickly and easily? Is it worth the effort if you only paid 99 cents?

Like most large retailers, Amazon has many different return policies, depending on the product in question. Strangely lacking, however, is a quick way to find the return policy for apps. It's not included in the digital goods section.

This likely means that whatever policy is followed is unofficial, at best. Our guess would be that they're still trying to figure out how to best structure a return policy that gives users some recourse when an app is just plain bad without inviting policy abuse.

Also along these lines, there's no good way for a developer to contact customers directly through Amazon. If users don't go to the developer's site and support mechanisms, there's not much a developer can do to avoid negative ratings.

Amazon Appstore for Android Feature #5: Application Pricing Policy

Amazon adjusts prices regularly on physical products. Anyone who has ever had a whole bunch of "save for later" items in their cart will have seen that product prices change on occasion. While we're not sure if this same system is in play with the app store pricing (yet), Amazon clearly retains final control over the price to customers. The initial agreement for paid apps says that the developer will always get some minimum amount, but there's no way for the developer to control the exact amount they get or what the customer pays. What this means for a developer is that if their margins are very low, or they have a fixed licensing fee for some technology they use, guaranteeing that each sale is above this amount may be difficult.

Then there's the "free app of the day" program. This is an opt-in program where Amazon chooses one premium app each day to provide for free. All apps provided in this way are usually paid apps. It's a highly visible promotion and is a great way for consumers to get apps they wouldn't otherwise have paid for. It's also a great for consumers to see what's available quality-wise if they had spent some money on apps. Finally, it's good for application developers in that it can give them a big boost in users if they are trying to build momentum.


Amazon Appstore Free App of the Day
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Figure 2. Each day, Amazon Appstore Provides a Paid App for Free

For an app that has advertising or usage based monetization, this is great. The exposure brings in tons of app downloads in just one day. According to a couple of sources, this is often in excess of 100,000 downloads in the 24-hour period of the promotion. The concept is that your app then will garner more attention and reviews, rank higher on the best selling lists, rank higher in the ratings with more ratings, get better word of mouth promotion, and provide your service with more users.

Does that really happen? It depends on the app. For a truly well designed app, the free app of the day promotion can really capture the attention of consumers. An app heavily dependent on social features that needs more users may reach critical mass due to this sort of promotion.

What if the app, though, has a minor bug or doesn't work on some handset models? This sort of promotion can also backfire in a big way. Negative ratings are hard to overcome once they're logged. Amazon Appstore doesn't yet list ratings for different versions of an app, which may help those who suffer from this problem.

Perhaps even worse, if an app ends up on this promotion in the hopes of increasing sales dramatically, but has some problem or just isn't particularly interesting to that many users, the developer may find themselves with thousands of new users to support that haven't, and never will, paid a dime. And what if each of those users is using resources that cost money, such as server storage or bandwidth, but the app or service doesn't have any alternative methods of monetization? You could end up losing money on the whole deal.

But wait, you might be thinking. Doesn't Amazon owe the developer a certain minimum amount? Perhaps you've even heard of people downloading free apps simply to support the developer. Well, you'd be right on both counts. Except for one small wrinkle that has come to light recently: the daily free app promotion appears to be done under a separate agreement where the app developer doesn't actually make any money.

As an app developer, you'll want to think carefully about the big picture before jumping on seemingly "too good to be true" promotions: it just might be too good to be true for your business.

And finally, read the developer agreements very closely.

Conclusion

We're happy to see such a well respected company as Amazon supporting the Android platform not just by selling numerous Android devices, but with their own app store platform, the Amazon Appstore. While Amazon Appstore has many unique features compared to other Android application marketplaces, developers need to be aware of the ramifications of publishing through this channel. The good news is, Amazon Appstore is still relatively young, and likely to respond to developer and user feedback. Android Market remains the most popular marketplace for Android apps, but of all of the alternate markets we've seen arise, Amazon Appstore is the one you shouldn't ignore.

About the Authors

Shane Conder Shane Conder and Lauren Darcey--Contributing Editors, Mobile Development--have coauthored two books on Android development: an in-depth programming book entitled Android Wireless Application Development (ISBN-13: 978-0-321-62709-4) and Sams Teach Yourself Android Application Development in 24 Hours (ISBN-13: 978-0-321-67335-0). When not writing, they spend their time developing mobile software at their company and providing consulting services.

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Lauren Darcey

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