[Opinion] Google Hiring Android Developers and the Android Ecosystem

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Google planning to hire Android application developers which, to me, seems to have the potential to be the worst possible thing they could do to the Android eco-system. I’m going to outline the reasons why I hold this view but I’m always open to other, well reasoned, points of view.

The reasons I currently have this view are as follows;

1. It does nothing to help non-Google developers who are currently struggling to make a living from developing Android applications.

There are very very few independent developers who are breaking even in terms of development costs for their apps. Some will say they’re making a profit, but if you ask them if that includes a charging for their development time at a commercial rate the answer is usually “No”. If you ask those who say “Yes” whether they could have earned more from a development contract or salaried Android job you’ll find many of them could have.

There are many reasons that have been floated around for this; from users not being able to find apps easily, to problems with the Google Checkout backed payments system, to user value perception issues where most users think software should be free, but no matter which is your favourite, Google hiring developers just to write apps does nothing to solve it.

All this move by Google does is add a very deep pocketed competitor who can afford to make a loss on individual apps in order to enhance the end-user perception of Android as a whole, and as any business person will tell you; if you’re competing with a company that can afford to make a loss over a long period of time on a product which competes with yours, then, well, things aren’t going to end well for you.

2. If the ideas and applications were good why aren’t the developers getting funding or making money already?

This one is quite simple; If the developers Google is looking to hire really do have good ideas why aren’t they able to get backing or start implementing them and make money from them?

My company built AndAppStore from scratch and ran it for two years. The systems we had in place were supporting tens of thousands of user sessions every day, so I have a good idea of the costs involved in getting a service up and running, and it’s not beyond the realms of what most people could get as a loan from their bank.

The only reason I can see why a developer with a good idea wouldn’t try to pursue it themselves is because they aren’t confident they’ll make enough money to pay a loan back and make a living from the idea, and that, as I mentioned in #1, is not helped by Google hiring developers.

3. Hiring developers on a salary rarely increases innovation.

Think about this; If you have a regular pay check with the chance of a bonus you’re going to do a reasonable job (or at least I’d hope so). If you have a stunning idea you think is going to revolutionise the world would you hand it over knowing you’ll still be getting the pay check with possibly a rise and an increase in bonus?, or would you be tempted to save some money from your day job and try and develop it and keep a large chunk of the profits yourself?

The one common thing that focuses most peoples minds is knowing that their next rent/mortgage payment depends on their next pay check. If a developer is on a salary they have a reasonably secure job so they don’t need to go far beyond what is needed for that job (although some choose to). If your working on a contract you go that extra bit further because you want to make sure in 3, 6, or however many weeks or months until the contract ends, you’ll get an option to renew for another stint or you’ll be able to leave knowing the people you’ve worked with will say good things about you to other people who may need your services.

If you’re doing indie development your daily income is largely dependant on the quality and appeal of your software. If you write poor software that doesn’t make money you’re not going to be able to pay your rent. If you let your product stagnate you will, at some point, find you’re not earning enough money. But if you write a revolutionary piece of software that has universal appeal and keep developing it ahead of the competition you should be able to live reasonably well as long as it includes creating viable sources of income (and not just relying on apps sales when the general opinion is app sales alone aren’t a good source of income.).

So moving developers from an indie “user appeal - monthly pay check” relationship to a “do X, get paid Y each month” salaried position reduces the direct benefit the developer sees from any innovation and so makes innovating less appealing.

So what can Google do?, well, as I mentioned on twitter, the Android Developers Challenges did little to help most developers, so a re-run of that probably wouldn’t help, but I do have an idea that I floated a few years ago after seeing Dan Morrill at the Google Developers day in London in 2008, and it’s one I still think has potential; Quality Markers (possibly via code signing).

The idea is basically this; Enhance Market to allow apps to carry a notification that certain organisations have quality tested them. This would allow users to see which apps have passed certain test criteria and assign an importance weighting based on who drew up the test criteria (so “Google Tested” would gain more user trust than “Tested by Ma & Pas' shack of apps”).

It would enhance application discoverability (users could search for apps tested by “Ma & Pas App Shack” if they wanted), users could see the various testing processes an application has gone through (so they could see apps which are “Google Tested” and, for a service like LinkedIn, they could also see which apps passed LinkedIns' testing process), it could raise prices (a “Google Tested” app could charge a premium), and it would help to filter out the less useful apps out there which wouldn’t get a “Google Tested” label. It would allow Google to run Market as is (i.e. without requiring testing), but also allow them to offer the Amazon Android App Store reassurance of letting users know some apps have been checked over by a third party.