Will developer anger at the Amazon Appstore kill the Amazon tablet before it's launched?

Will developer anger at the Amazon Appstore kill the Amazon tablet before it's launched?
The Amazon Appstore has become the whipping boy of developers recently because of missing features, troubling practices, and an ecosystem that is designed more to benefit Amazon than the developers. The Amazon Appstore launched in March, and last month the troubles for developers got to the point where some began to leave. The first story to get circulated around was from developer Bithack, which pulled its physics game, Apparatus, from the Appstore because of a number of problems with the way Amazon ran its store. Now, just a couple days ago developer Shifty Jelly pulled its Pocket Casts app from the Amazon Appstore and posted a scathing review of the service. 

Developer issues

Both Bithack and Shifty Jelly have a number of issues which overlap. First up on both of the lists of complaints was the lengthy review process. Unlike the Android Market, which gets its own flak for being something of a wild west where anyone and anything goes, the Amazon Appstore has a slow approval process for both new apps and updates. Developers cite a 2 week long review process, and Bithack had to go through an extra week after its app was declined and had to be resubmitted. In a unified ecosystem like iOS, something like this wouldn't be a problem, but because submissions are instant in the Android Market, it means that there will often be a newer, updated version of an app in the Android Market as compared to Amazon. Many times, this may not cause much of a problem, but there have been some big troubles. For example, when UberMedia was tagged by Twitter for TOS violations, Twidroyd became unusable. The update was pushed to the Android Market immediately once the issues were fixed, but the Amazon Appstore was left with an unusable Twidroyd app being downloaded by unknowing users. 

Another big issue is simply a lack of communication. First of all, users cannot contact developers directly from the Amazon Appstore, users can only leave reviews on an app. Sometimes, this may not be an issue as developers can monitor comments and reply to users, but that is an awkward solution at best, and doesn't guarantee that users will see the replies. Originally, international developers like Bithack had no way to respond to user complaints, because you needed to have purchased the app in order to comment, which it couldn't do because the Appstore is US-only. Of course, a way to directly communicate with developers would help because another issue with Amazon is there are also no error reports, so developers again must rely on comments in order to identify bugs. There is a "Leave Feedback" option in the Appstore app itself which supposedly will eventually get to the developers, but it is buried a bit and is just underneath a "Contact Customer Support" option, and so is hardly easy to pick out as the way to contact a developer.

The biggest issue is simply a matter of control. With the Android Market, developers have control because Google is mostly hands-off unless issues of malware or other security problems arise. In the Amazon Appstore, developers have very little control. We have known for a while that Amazon reserves the right to set the price of an app as it sees fit, regardless of what the developer wants. But beyond that, according to Shifty Jelly, Amazon will also rewrite an app's description. With Pocket Casts, Amazon apparently changed the description that the app could "refresh 100 podcasts in the time it takes other apps to do 1" to being able to "add 100 podcasts". 

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Also, there is still no way for developers to set device compatibility rules for their apps, or even offer multiple APKs like the Android Market. So, users can purchase and download an app only to find out that it is incompatible. Even when writing this, I was allowed to purchase and download Samurai II: Vengeance (a game only compatible with Tegra 2 devices) on my Nexus One. And, this leads to the last big complaint with Amazon, which is that there is no easy way to get a refund on a purchased app. You can contact Amazon Customer service, and usually get a refund, but the process is certainly not that transparent.

Overall, the Appstore is designed to be interconnected with Amazon, and link customers through to other Amazon sections to buy more things there. Amazon uses the free app of the day as a way to bring people in, but it doesn't exactly care whether users stay in the Appstore as long as customers are in the Amazon ecosystem. This leads to developers not getting paid when their apps are downloaded thousands of times in the free app promotion. But, this has also fostered a culture within users where people stop in for the free app, which devs don't get paid for, then leave without buying anything else. The Appstore has become more of a free app repository than full-fledged store.

Amazon's side of the story

After the ordeal with Bithack, Android Police talked to Aaron Rubenson, director of the Amazon Appstore for Android, and the day before Shifty Jelly posted about its issues, Venture Beat also talked with Rubenson. From these two interviews, we've been able to gather Amazon's reasoning for some of the issues developers have. 

The basic tenet of Amazon seems to be "unify, curate, and discovery." As far as communication, Rubenson stated that Amazon wants a unified experience across the site, which is why all feedback goes through Amazon, and there are no links directly to the developer. This unification idea is also supposedly behind the way refunds are handled, although the logic gets a little fuzzier. The idea is that Amazon wants to be the one providing the service, and not just be a listing platform for developers. There is no return window like the Android Market, because Amazon doesn't want to hurt developers. This is a very Apple-ish approach, but obviously it does have its own flaws. As mentioned, it makes the refund process far more opaque, and one could argue that a bad review from a customer forced to keep the app could be more damaging than having a return window.

The review policy and length falls under the idea of curation. This should be one of the biggest benefits of the Amazon system. The Android Market has hundreds of thousands of apps, but that includes thousands and thousands of instances of spam, copyright infringement, clones, and just flat out useless apps. Amazon wants to have a curated experience to avoid all of those issues. Again, this is a very Apple-ish idea, and could work well, but it may still be a bit too soon to judge. The Appstore has already grown to around 14,000 apps, most of which are games, and aside from the issues with updated versions mentioned before, the curation has worked well. Curation is also the main reason for the app review process, because while Amazon does use it to weed out spam, it is also used as a testing period to supposedly combat any potential compatibility issues. Amazon also claims there are warnings when purchasing an incompatible app, but I certainly didn't see any.

Curation is of course the main piece of discovery, which is another benefit of the Appstore. Google has redesigned the Market a number of times, and introduced the Web Store in efforts to help people discover new apps. Of course, even with the review process in the Apple App Store there are similar troubles with discovery simply because of the sheer number of apps. Discovery is much better on Amazon right now mainly due to the small number of apps. Discovery seems to also be behind the ideas of rewording app descriptions and changing the price, but it seems like there must be other ways to feature an app aside from cutting the price without developer consent.

The future of the Amazon tablet

There are certainly a number of issues with the Amazon Appstore, and there is also plenty of time to try sorting out some of the issues before the release of the rumored-but-certainly-real Amazon tablet. Because this will be an Amazon branded tablet, that means there will not be any Google Apps. As per Google's TOS, if you remove one Google App (the Market), you can't have any of them (Gmail, Maps, GTalk, etc.) This means that Amazon will have to find ways to populate those features through partnerships, proprietary apps, or its Appstore. Amazon could potentially have both the Android Market and its own Appstore on the device, but that would create confusion for users, which is something Amazon wants to avoid. Additionally, in order to have the Android Market on a 2.x device, there are much more strict rules for having certain features like: camera, GPS, and mobile data. As of right now, the Appstore simply doesn't have enough in it to cover all of the use cases of a tablet. Given that the Appstore has grown from about 4,000 apps at launch to 14,000 today, it seems reasonable that it will have at least 25,000 by the time the Amazon tablet launches. But, given the proportion of games, will that even be enough?

As with many cases, success of the Amazon tablet seems to be highly dependent on how you frame the aims of the tablet. Many people in the tech world want to frame the Amazon tablet as an iPad-killer, but what exactly needs to happen for it to "kill" the iPad? Will sales be enough, or will features be a big part of the equation?

My feeling is that the Amazon tablet will be an extension of the Kindle. At heart, it will be an e-reader, but an e-reader with benefits. Amazon has learned from the Nook Color. Consumers want a full screen e-reader with apps and extra features, but Amazon doesn't want to foster the rooting community that has sprung up around the Nook Color. Amazon, like Apple, wants to control the experience, and this means giving consumers what they want, but it also means likely alienating the more tech savvy crowd. However, given that the Amazon tablet will be based on Android 2.x, the tech savvy crowd was already most likely alienated.

If you expect the Amazon tablet to be an Android experience, or even a full-fledged tablet, it feels like you're setting yourself up for disappointment. If you live outside of the US and want an Amazon tablet, you're likely to be very disappointed. If you expect the Amazon tablet to compete on features with the iPad (aside from handily beating the iBookstore), again that may lead to disappointment. However, if you expect an entertainment device, and more importantly a shopping device, that seems to be where the Amazon tablet is headed. It will most certainly have deep ties into the Amazon store, it will heavily feature the Kindle store and Kindle magazine selections, and there looks to be an impressive array of games available through the Appstore. There is a very good chance that the Amazon tablet, especially the 7" variant, will come in as one of the cheaper tablets on the market.

Amazon has already been toying with ad-supported Kindles, so it seems pretty likely that there would also be ad-supported variants of the Amazon tablet in order to get the 7" model down to the sub-$200 sweet spot. Amazon has the name recognition and Kindle following to quickly become one of the top tablet sellers if the price is low enough. The trouble is that those of us who truly care (maybe a bit too much) about the mobile world will almost undoubtedly be disappointed, because the Amazon tablet will more likely not be made for us. Compared to Honeycomb tablets that will be out this fall, and the rumored iPad HD, the Amazon tablet likely will come up short for many, but the price will sway people towards it. The features will be limited to keep cost down, and as well stocked as the games section may be in the Appstore, it seems unlikely to have the variety of apps and basic options we crave, especially with developers taking a backseat to Amazon's goals.

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