4 Ways Google Can Clean Up the Android Market

As far as shopping experiences go, Google’s Android Market (s aapl) is akin to a farmers market, with different wares around every corner and in no particular order. And it’s not much better for developers — Jon Lech Johansen, aka DVD Jon, rightly suggests, “[I]t’s time for Google to clean up the house.” But without exercising a control process around application approval like Apple does — a practice that Apple has been criticized for in the past — Google has to proceed carefully, lest it lose what many feel is a key advantage over Apple: openness.

Johansen shares a sad but accurate example of what I call “apps gone wild”: A number of free ringtone app screenshots are reportedly monetized by Google Ad revenues, but while the ringtones don’t appear to be legally licensed, without an approval process, Google allows them to exist, thereby making it appear that it’s acceptable to take and resell someone else’s property. I’m not insinuating that Google actively condones such actions — I personally don’t think it does — but the company has no mechanism in place to prevent them. Or does it?

Google could exercise the remote kill switch, just as it did last week to remove two potentially malicious apps from Android devices. But if the free ringtone applications pointed out by Johansen are any indication of what shouldn’t be in the Android Market, there’s probably too many apps to remotely pull out. Still, a full review of the 65,000 applications available in the Market and some subsequent spring cleaning is in order.

After that, it’s all about maintenance. While there will always be spammy apps, fart titles and other time-wasters that add little to no value, at the bare minimum, Google needs to make sure that no software titles infringe upon the rights of content creators. The software review process needn’t go as far as Apple’s, which has rejected applications that replicate core functionality of iOS4.

One method to improve the customer experience without completely controlling the Market is for Google to better manage application permissions. Today, every potential download shows a detailed list of what phone features the software title has access to, which is confusing to many consumers. I see the need for the permission warnings, but only because there’s no centralized review process — essentially, Google has moved the process down to the user level, and most users don’t want to be bothered with it.

I know that I’m not reading all of the permissions these days and I suspect many others are skipping them, too. A review for malicious intent at the store level is worth considering if Google wants to improve the Market experience. Perhaps devs should be asked why a music app requires access to the phone’s contact database, for example? The answer is likely that it’s to share information on what tunes you’re listening to, but it’s worth asking the question all the same.

After the store shelves are winnowed down and polished up, it’s time to adjust the aisles. It boggles my mind that the leader in search offers a poor search experience for Google’s Android Market. When I spell a search term incorrectly or I’m unsure of the proper search term to use, the Market either returns terrible results or none at all. When was the last time that you did a web search on Google and came up empty? Granted, my misspelling of “Slingbox” is my own fault, but at least on the web, Google is kind enough to say “Did you mean Slingbox?” when I fat finger my search. With Android 2.2, I’m just now seeing the same “smarts” that Google’s web search offers, which should get pushed down to all Android devices, regardless of version.

I shouldn’t overlook Google’s recent efforts to improve the Market — Android 2.2 now supports application auto-upgrading and at last month’s Google I/O event, Vic Gundotra previewed Google’s upcoming web-based Market, which should address some of the on-device shortcomings. Users can buy apps from the web store, and if they’re signed in to Google, purchased apps will be pushed directly over the air to their Android handsets.

From a customer service and usability standpoint, these are positive steps forward, but if the store is still a mess, the benefits will be muted. And when you’re gaining 160,000 new customers to your storefront daily, you don’t want a sloppy store.

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