Android Software Piracy Rampant Despite Google's Efforts to Curb

Pirating Android apps is a long-standing problem. But it seems to be getting worse, even as Google begins to respond much more aggressively. The dilemma: protecting developers’ investments, and revenue stream, while keeping an open platform.

By John Cox
Wed, September 29, 2010

Network World — Android’s growing success as a smartphone operating system is bringing a long-simmering problem to light: A lot of Android applications are being pirated. The openness of the platform has made it easy for people to steal applications without paying for them.

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Until very recently, it was easy to strip rudimentary copy protection from applications offered on the Android Market Web site, and then use, offer or even sell the software as your own. The problem isn’t new, and Google (GOOG) has taken much more aggressive steps in 2010 to make it harder to pirate Android apps.

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But the growing popularity of the OS with enterprise users and developers is creating greater urgency, as pirated code robs developers of revenue and the incentive to remain committed Android. (See Android Set to Rule Over Apple and RIM Operating Systems.)

Network World’s Android Angle blogger, Mark Murphy, bluntly noted a year ago that “Right now, it is very straightforward — if you publish on Android Market, your application will be made available for free download outside of the Market.” He added, “This is part and parcel of having an open environment like Android.” The then-current Android Market copy protection mechanisms “have been demonstrated to be ineffective.”

One Android developer, with the handle Chimaera, reported his first app was pirated within a month, and the pirates’ download statistics were more impressive than his own. The crowning indignity: Trying to get file servers to remove the pirated software was frustratingly complicated. “They made you feel as [if] you are the offender,” he wrote.

What’s especially galling to professional developers is watching sales plunge as piracy rates soar. “The current issue we face with Android is rampant piracy, and we’re working to provide hacking counter measures, a difficult task,” says Jean Gareau, founder of VidaOne, an Austin, Texas, software company that specializes in health and fitness applications for a variety of operating systems.

One developer, “Dave,” of KeyesLabs, argued in an online forum that a “culture of cheating” was developing around the OS.

KeyesLabs created a Android utility called Screebl. In a recent blog post, the company reported: “Over time … we began to notice a dramatic increase in the number of pirated versions of Screebl Pro, accompanied by a decrease in sales. Lately our piracy rates have spiked as high as 90% on some days.” In some cases, it took only minutes after a new version was posted for pirated code to appear.

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