The iPhone was calling me. It was daring me to run free down the aisles of the Apple App Store in much the same way my 3-year-old son does when he hits our neighborhood Toys ‘R’ Us.
But my cellphone is my business phone, and I wasn’t about to walk AT&T’s network tightrope. I’d been a Verizon customer for nearly 10 years and was happy with the service, despite having to settle for a fair-to-middling handset lineup.
Yet new Android touchscreen smartphones beckoned, so when my flip phone developed a bad case of swine flu — luckily right when my contract allowed an upgrade — I chose an HTC Droid Eris. Like Indiana Jones in “The Last Crusade,” I think I chose wisely.
The processor is not quite as fast as the Motorola Droid, and it doesn’t have the physical keyboard I had asked for — nay, demanded — for all those years, but I liked the weight in my hand, could deal with the virtual keyboard, and thought the screen was just the right size.
Plus, there was that Android operating system, loaded with Google-branded goodies that lured me with desktop familiarity. I’d written enough stories about the open source OS to know about its strengths and weaknesses, and I’d come away excited about the potential to eventually maintain pace with the iPhone OS.
Combined with HTC’s Sense user interface, which provides more screen options for organizing apps and tools, I thought I was in finger-swiping smartphone heaven.
Until I burst through the doors of the Android Market. What should have been a clean, well-lit, user-friendly place to shop for apps for work and play — the digital equivalent of a Best Buy — instead turned out to be a loud, messy bazaar.
Who’s Afraid of Those Bugs?
The open source concept, at least at this early stage of the smartphone game, apparently comes complete with bad grammar and fractured English littering the descriptions for some of the apps, as well as an abundance of complaints about buggy 1.0 versions that prompt force-quits and suck up battery power.
Don’t get me wrong. This didn’t stop me from working through my iPhone envy by loading up on apps both functional and fun. I’m tweeting and Facebooking. I downloaded the Layar augmented reality app and marveled at the sight of pop-up balloons showing me restaurants and shops in downtown Seattle, as well as real-time tweets, seen through my Eris’ camera.
I set up Rush and Michael Giacchino radio on Pandora; I may never go back to my second-gen iPod nano. I’m using up precious data time by reliving my “Tron” youth with Light Racer 3D. And I try to start each day with a “Bloom County” flashback.
All of this was accomplished via searches within the phone itself and based on “most popular” recommendations in the Market — and, of course, there’s much more. Right now, the coolness quotient is keeping me from being truly bothered by the lack of an iTunes-like desktop client, although I haven’t actually paid for an app yet. There’s no way to quickly check out demos without clicking on a developer’s Web site link. Hey, I’m spending enough money on this PC-in-my-pocket.
However, it has dawned on me why I’m not seeing any mentions of the Android Market in the initial round of Verizon marketing for its Droid phones. The Google apps certainly are front and center — maps, voice search, turn-by-turn navigation — but there’s no general waving of the “who needs an App Store” flag, which would fit in well with the in-your-face “there’s a map for that” ads that Verizon has used to great effect so far.
The reason Verizon isn’t marketing the Market is that “we advertise our network, which is our core business,” Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Raney tells me. “The developer’s relationship is with Google, not Verizon Wireless. We stick with what we do best, which is our network, certainly.”
This makes sense, but I have another theory: Verizon isn’t shooting off its mouth about the apps because the Android Market is still the Wild West. It needs structure, just like my 3-year-old does when he rampages through those toy store aisles.
A Rowdy Android App Army
“That’s a common sentiment,” Andrew Kameka, managing editor of the Androinica blog, tells me.
“It’s not just Verizon. The same thing happens with T-Mobile and Sprint for their Android phones,” he points out. “The Android Market really pales in comparison to Apple. Even though Android has a lot of great apps, the distribution isn’t there yet. You can only [download] from your phone. They’re in desperate need of a desktop client that looks just as good as iTunes and is just as easy to use.”
There’s a wide gap in app performance, depending on whether your Android phone is running Android OS 1.5 or 1.6, says Kameka, who’s been chronicling Android software and phones since the first T-Mobile G1 came out in 2008.
When it comes to buggy apps, “I’ve seen a lot of developers reach out to the community,” he notes. “I get people who say, ‘I have a new app going out Thursday, I’d appreciate it if you could check it out and give me your opinion.’ They have private groups and recruit users who give them feedback on how to develop the app, and then they publish.”
The checks and balances lie within the community; such is the beauty — and danger — of an open source operating system. Apple rules its App Store roost like the Politburo ruled the former Soviet Union. It’s becoming a tech blogosphere meme: the rigid nature of the company’s app approval process. Like Cold War-era Moscow, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of freedom. Yet there is order, discipline, consistency.
Does this metaphor fit? Despite his famous mercurial nature, I’m having trouble picturing Steve Jobs on a Kremlin balcony reviewing the troops.
“I think that works,” 451 Group Research Director Chris Hazelton assures me. “The Android Market is looking for self-governance. There hasn’t been any self-governance in mobility, so this is kind of a new field, a new opportunity. Open source and openness is on the rise. It’s always been a very controlled experience with both carrier and device vendor locking everything down. It’s very much out of control now. Like the Eastern Europeans after the Berlin Wall, they’re all going ‘now what the heck do we want?'”
As a new Droid customer, I know what I want: a chance to preview an app before I decide to spend money on it. I don’t think the quantity is going to be a problem over time; the Android OS is too compelling a solution for developers, who can get something to market much quicker than before. Still, quality could be an issue as reports start circulating regarding app issues.
It’s a shame, too, as it’s been a while since Apple played up any aspect of its iPhone other than the App Store in its TV commercials. Now Verizon and other Android carriers can literally put their own finger on touch-centric ads playing up apps like Pandora, Yelp, PicSay, WeatherBug — you name it. Instead, they’ve left themselves open to “Mac vs. PC”-style counterpunches making fun of buggy Android Market software.
Marketing the Market
It says something about how carriers are staying away from touting the Android Market when the only mention of it I’ve seen so far this holiday season comes in a Best Buy TV spot. “The Android Market allows you go to in and download any application you want,” says a Geek Squad member who waxes poetic about enjoying the look on shoppers’ faces.
Verizon doesn’t own the Market and it has designs on its own version of an app store, Hazelton reminds me — hence, the lack of mentions in the marketing. And rival carriers also have access to the Market. However, it would still benefit Verizon to play up app options to entice consumers like me, who also have iPhone/App Store envy but are afraid, very afraid, of AT&T’s network. We need to be made aware of any potential coolness factors awaiting us in a Verizon /T-Mobile/Sprint store.
“I know I’ve criticized the way the [Android] carriers promote the App Market,” says Kameka. “There are great apps on there, they’re just harder to find. Eventually, more carriers are going to have to promote the apps themselves. T-Mobile recently started distributing a magazine, and everybody who buys an Android phone gets one, and within the magazine they have lists of recommended apps.”
You mean — there’s a mag for that? Talk about an old-school way to promote the next generation of digital mobile tools.
Google did not respond to my question about whether it would begin marketing the Android Market anytime soon.
Verizon’s Raney said she doesn’t know about Verizon’s future marketing plans and if she did, she wouldn’t share them with me.
“I’m working on a press release now that talks about some apps [in the Market] that might be beneficial to small business customers,” she reveals, “but that’s public relations, not marketing.”
It is also an admission that Verizon sees the value in telling the Android Market app story to current and potential customers. Whether that will manifest itself in a future snappy marketing campaign remains to be seen.
For all I know, the commercials are being shot already. Maybe they’ll hire Owen Wilson to go up against his brother Luke’s appearances in AT&T’s current TV spots.
Of course, if Verizon makes a deal with Apple, then my iPhone envy may return — with a vengeance.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.