Android fans: pay for your apps, please

27 Apr 2012

The Football Manager series is one of the world's most popular gaming franchises, and no-one could deny that its iOS version has been a success. The recently released Android version, though, isn't doing quite as well, with studio boss Miles Jacobson claiming that, at last count, the piracy rate for his game was at 5:1 in favour of illegally acquired copies.

Jacobson went on to say that if the game “doesn’t hit targets, we won’t be doing another for the platform”, and his view – that it’s not worth developing on Android when so much cash is lost to piracy – is hardly unique. Research firm Yankee Group found that 27% of Android developers surveyed saw piracy as a “huge problem”, with a further 26% also expressing concern And the developer of hit iOS game Infinity Blade cites piracy for not porting the game, saying that the OS “will become a viable place for game developers, but that hasn’t happened yet”.

Declining developer interest

Worrying statistics are beginning to emerge elsewhere, too: cross-platform app development service Appcelerator’s latest developer survey (which consulted 2,173 developers) found interest in Android dropped by 4.7% in the last quarter. That was the biggest drop in interest among the major platforms: the iPhone dropped from 91% to 89% interest, and Windows Phone 7 held steady at just under 40%, after a huge jump in the previous quarter.

It's easy to see why developers feel this way. Take this thread in Reddit's Android section, which concerned app payment. Some responses make for grim reading: “I run Linux so I’m not in the habit of paying”, says one, and another says he has "never paid for an app, will never pay for one” – going on to cite ad-supported versions as his preferred alternative. Other users also oppose payment but, as well as using ad-supported software, they also run ad-blocking tools -- putting a swift stop to another potential revenue stream.

Our sister title Bit-tech has seen similar attitudes. It launched a £1.79 Android app last summer, and some of the comments made for grim reading.  “If it was free, sure. I don’t pay for apps” said one, and another explained that his initial excitement “soon turned to glum disappointment” when asked to pay – before hinting he'd wait for a pirated version.

On both occasions pirates and those who objected to paying were chastised by the majority who are willing to pay for the software, but slim margins mean even a small number of non-payers can be significant. Indeed, Jacobson says that even if 10% of pirated copies directly represented lost sales "that would make a massive difference for developers", and could even be "the difference between a studio surviving".

It's indicative of the attitude that seems to pervade much of the platform. Many seem to think that paying is wrong, iOS users are somehow being ripped off by software that's never been cheaper, and that ripping off developers -- often self-employed people who rely on that lost income -- is acceptable.

The secure alternatives

It's harmful, and not just for those who lose sales. Google's Play store has plenty going for it: not far behind the App store in quantity and, arguably quality. Google's carefree attitude often does more harm than good, though, and as time goes on I'm beginning to think that curated, managed walled gardens are the way forward, rather than the once-appealing open fields.

If app piracy worsens, though, these trends will not continue. Developers will return to iOS or even switch to Windows Phone 7. Both are more secure, and Windows Phone 7 is gathering steam, with 30,000 apps added from December to April, bringing the total to 80,000. Analysts from Morgan Stanley reckon that 43 million Windows phones will be shipped this year, with that number rising to 74 million in 2013.

Apps are the lifeblood of a smartphone, for both developers and users - and if a significant proportion of a platform's userbase isn't willing to pay for software, then many won't see this as a viable business model. If developers desert Android, then neither its versatility nor its low cost will keep a grip on plenty of users who see the best, biggest and most innovative apps appearing on rival platforms.

Similar effects have been felt on the otherwise-healthy PC: Ubisoft didn’t port I Am Alive to the PC, saying “so few people pay for PC games… we have to weigh up the cost of making it”. Successful shooter Bulletstorm won’t see a sequel because the original “didn’t do very well on PC”, with Epic Games president Mike Capps saying “piracy was a pretty big problem”.

If piracy worsens, developers and users will move away from Android, and manufacturers will surely follow the crowds. Samsung, HTC and Sony still support Android, but if the platform falters, sales drop and profits slide, then these companies will have few problems switching allegiances.

Plenty of people love Android but, conversely, plenty of its biggest fans seem to show their allegiance by resisting the urge to support some of its best software and most talented developers. If that continues, there might not be much of a platform left to exploit. It’s a worst-case scenario, but it’s easy to prevent: next time you feel like pirating rather than forking out less than the cost of a sandwich, reconsider. Your favourite phone platform might depend on it.

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