Google’s New Year’s Resolution should be cleaning up the Play Store to ensure Android’s future

Some time last week I was looking through the Google Play Store, browsing the less frequented categories such as “Top New Free” and “Trending”. As someone who frequently reviews apps, there are some gems to be found along the perimeter of the Android market.

Recently, though, I have encountered two troubling trends in the Play Store, both of which Google needs to find better ways of preventing. One is outright illegal; the other is merely wretched.

The first involves a lack of, shall we say, editorial oversight in the publishing of apps. Developers can and do mimic the intellectual property of other companies, often purveying unreleased and highly desirable games that bear little if no resemblance to their official counterparts. Within this category I found the above app, GTA 5, published by a company as much in common with Rockstar Games as I have to the Prime Minister. The game steals screenshots from the yet-unreleased game and even pilfers its logo from Rockstar’s marketing materials.

Despite being published today the “ad-supported” game has already hauled in over 10,000 downloads, though it’s clear that what users are downloading has nothing to do with the actual project whatsoever. It’s possible, too, that the game was initially published as something else and the developer has since made changes to the name and the art, but the issue is no less alarming. Multiple people, including me, have reported the app as fraudulent, but it still exists on the Play Store at the time of writing. Not only does this muddle Rockstar’s reputation as a publisher of quality Android games, but it undermines the idea of the Play Store as a trustworthy distributor of apps. I’m sure it will eventually be taken down — it is apparently a low-quality puzzle game of some sort — but the damage has already been done. There are thousands of examples of fake games on the Play Store, though the issue is certainly not limited to Google’s ecosystem. But with Apple and Microsoft vetting individual apps before publication, at least there is some measure of quality control; Android provides none at all, unless of course malware is discovered in the APK itself.

The next issue I’ve found is one that took me quite by surprise. I found an app in the “Top New Free” section called Vintage Camera. With a promising rating above 4.0 and a good list of features, I eagerly downloaded the app to see if it was worth writing about. When I opened it for the first time, however, I was greeted with the above License Agreement. Many apps require that you give up some of your privacy, either through sharing of information with third parties or contribution to marketing research through anonymous usage statistics. This is the first Android app that I can recall to take a page out of Windows shareware software and actually alter the operating system. This is only possible because Android apps are less sandboxed than their iOS or Windows Phone counterparts; when you install an app you may permit it to run in the background or change system settings. That is what makes the OS so powerful and so potentially open to exploitation.

In agreeing to Vintage Camera’s License Agreement you allow the app, which likely teamed with a digital marketing company, to add a search icon to your home screen, add a bookmark to your browser and change the default search engine of your browser. While these seem relatively harmless at first, it sets a terrible precedent for future app developers, especially since this app has garnered so much interest in the past month. It’s also an insidious way to degrade the user experience: imagine a relative notice to Android suddenly opening his or her browser to a modified home page which is likely riddled with ads and promotions for other apps.

But, you may say, many search companies, Google included, bundled those awful toolbars with free or ad-supported apps in the mid-’00s. Yes, they did, and they continue to litter the ever-shortening vertical space of your parents’ 17-inch CRT monitor to this day. Browser toolbars left a tasteless legacy that has since been supplanted by gentler forms of marketing. Android runs the risk of becoming inundated with such eyesores unless Google puts a stop to it. The company already altered its developer policies in August, promising to do away with spammy and malicious apps. Yet here are two examples among many, hiding in plain sight.

Google has done well for itself in 2012. It has furthered Android’s success, brought a great number of quality apps to iOS, and has shown off the evolution of its core products with Google Now and the Knowledge Graph. But Android is still stigmatized with stories of rampant malware and fake apps.

Users need to smarten up, too: if GTA 5 isn’t even available for the PS3 and Xbox, why would it be available, for free, on Android?