Android has an unmitigated piracy problem. And Google likes it that way.
Piracy is an existential problem for every platform. There is a magnanimous community of pirates who collaborate to crack apps, find loopholes in code-signing processes, and create alternative platforms like Cydia which (while not explicitly) facilitate app piracy. Fencing piracy is another community, an industry even. To understand how actively a platform owner handles piracy, it’s necessary to chart the flow of money on the platform.
AppStore is not just a complimentary ecosystem for Apple. In fact, the AppStore is one of the primary drivers of sales and the single most important differentiator of Apple hardware. Despite being such a central piece of experience it’s run at break-even and money flow is a little convoluted to map on the AppStore.
Apple relies on hardware sales for profits. However, Apple devices derive a large part of their value from the AppStore. Hence, it’s crucial for Apple to protect the AppStore value-chain. It involves facilitating developers with state-of-the-art tools, making payments easy, making apps easy to discover and, amongst other things, repressing piracy to keep the developers in business. There is a strict code-signing mechanism that restricts side-loading pirated or home-brewed apps.
All these measures align very well with Apple’s business model: create great devices that people love to use and foster an unmatched ecosystem of content that keeps users delighted and adds incredible value. The focus is primarily on quality over quantity, in content as well as hardware. Google is very different.
Android is Google’s platter to serve their services on. Google spends billions on Android and gives it away for free, with a belief that OEMs will keep Google services bundled with the device and in-turn, their devices get to access the Google Play Store. The more devices there are, the more users there are on Android, the more they use Google’s services. Hence, profits are directly tied to quantity. How does piracy factor into this?
Android has always been about being good enough. If it’s good enough, and it’s free, it can win over the premium offerings in budget-constrained environments. And this has indeed worked out pretty well in a lot of markets, especially in developing ones. China and India are the new frontiers of growth and have a per-capita annual GDP of $6000 and $1500, respectively. $1.99 is not chump change. However, apps are still a big part of the value proposition. Basically, people want apps but cannot pay for them. Hence, they pirate. iOS is near impossible to dig into while Android stands a blink away from being rooted. Side-loading APKs is the norm.
Google has an inherent incentive in keeping piracy alive. It makes Android a much more attractive option in developing nations and earns Google users, a lot, lot, of users. This certainly cuts into developer returns, who are then forced to resort to ads. This also works out in Google’s favor as the largest seller of Ads in the world. Does this affect the quality of apps? Certainly. Are they barely good enough? Certainly. And, that is good enough for Google.