AMAZON has made an audacious move to bring the fight to Google with the announcement of Amazon Underground, a revamp of its Android all-in-one app offering free downloads of paid apps on a permanent basis.
Underground is already known for its heavy use of limited availability free apps, and is a completely disruptive model. The concept works thusly: instead of the end user paying, or the app being riddled with advertisements, Amazon will pay commission to developers based on the amount of time users spend on the apps.
On the face of it, it's an offer that sounds too good to be true. As Amazon puts it: "To be clear, we're the ones picking up those per-minute charges so for you it's simply free."
Apps that apply come under the Actually Free banner within the app, which itself also includes Amazon shopping functionality in case you're playing Cut the Rope and suddenly realise you're out of cat food.
The explanation also takes a swipe at Google, pointing out that Amazon won't allow the Underground app in the Play store because it rejects carriage for rival app stores. Last year, Amazon's all in one app was removed from the Play store last year for incorporating the App Store.
And so begins a whole heap of problems. First of all, we've warned time and again that sideloading apps is a bad idea. You have to switch it on manually because 96 percent of Android malware, and therefore nearly all mobile malware across platforms, comes from sideloaded Android apps.
Secondly, there's the privacy factor. We've asked Amazon to explain how exactly it plans to monitor use of these Actually Free apps. It sounds like there must be some sort of tracking mechanism that wouldn't be in the version on the Play store (i.e. the paid version). If that's the case, essentially what Amazon is offering is a bunch of spyware-ridden warez, albeit non-maliciously.
Thirdly, this model could leave developers out of pocket. As one mobile developer we asked put it: "That sounds like a terrible idea that will fail miserably. The majority of paid apps get used a handful of times and [are] then forgotten. App developers won't want this. They want the instant cash from the purchase, and after that it's 'Fuck you.'"
Right now, however, it has attracted some big names for launch including Sega, Rovio (maker of Angry Birds) and Disney.
But is this business model sustainable? Smaller developers may find themselves pushed out because they simply can't afford to develop to these tiny margins. Think Spotify for gaming.
We're awaiting Amazon's reaction to our questions, and in the meantime it's back to Candy Crush which, for the record, isn't included. µ
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