Apple and Google Battle to Clean Up App Markets

Apple and Google have enjoyed immense success with their smartphone releases, and both companies have battled it out for mobile platform supremacy. With all the good comes some bad, however, and each is fighting separate issues that have made way into their booming app markets.

A post on Touch Arcade, a forum dedicated to gaming and apps for the iOS platform, has caused Apple to release a warning to developers engaged in the practice of artificially inflating their app rankings.  One anonymous developer used a Touch Arcade posting to claim that a firm offered him a top 25 App Store ranking in exchange for $5,000.  The firm solicited the unnamed developer by showcasing a strong history of top app rankings and even went as far to detail how they achieved such success.  The developer wrote: “I was totally shocked when I heard that there were eight apps in the top 25 were all promoted by them.  He said he had outsourced someone to build him a bot farm and the bots will automatically download his clients’ apps and drive up their rankings.”

Apple responded to the news of app ranking inflation with a post on its developer forum: “Once you build a great app, you want everyone to know about it. However, when you promote your app, you should avoid using services that advertise or guarantee top placement in App Store charts.”  The post continued, listing the consequences of any such action: “Even if you are not personally engaged in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, employing services that do so on your behalf may result in the loss of your Apple Developer Program membership.”

The anonymous developer noted that the contracted use of bot farms to inflate app rankings was quite common.  A quick look at some statistics shows exactly why such firms would exist, as the potential financial gains are very appealing.  As the popularity of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices has boomed, so has the accompanying app market.  Apps offer a great deal of added functionality and entertainment for device owners, and the created demand has resulted in the creation of a plethora of apps from developers looking to make a name for themselves. 

According to Tech Net, an astounding 466,000 new jobs have been created in the United States alone since 2007 thanks to the birth of the app economy.  While the number of created jobs is impressive, the consumer end is much larger, so securing a top 25 ranking in an app market overloaded with selections means more downloads, and, in the end, more revenue for the app’s developer.  The fierce competition amongst app developers seeking top rankings has led to the launch of what seems to be an entire subculture of firms dedicated to the craft of boosting app rankings.

Although bot farms offer firms one avenue to inflate rankings, others, such as Top Deals, prefers to use humans to achieve their goals.  A Top Deals spokesman admitted to employing over 200,000 users based in the United States armed with iOS devices and iTunes accounts to help its contracted developers secure their desired App Store positions.  The spokesman described Top Deals’ business model in an interview with Pocket Gamer: “Each time we take a new case from an app developer, our users will be notified to download the certain app during the required time period. After the verification, the users will get money for this download.”

While Apple has its own problems with app ranking inflation, Google’s Android Market has been criticized for its security, or lack thereof.  Android apps have been hit with the unappealing distinction of being malware magnets due to Google’s supposed lackluster screening process and the overall openness of the platform.  Android’s growing popularity and presence also makes it an attractive target for malware creators.  When you consider the fact that Android apps are available on some third-party markets as well, the need for increased security is a must.

Google has attempted to address the security problem plaguing Android apps by employing Bouncer, a malware checker.  The company implemented Bouncer during the second half of 2011 and reported success with the move, as the number of potentially malicious apps in the Android Market dropped by 40 percent.

Google was praised for its use of Bouncer, but noted that since it only scans the Android Market, third-party markets are still left virtually unchecked.  Catalin Cosoi, a security expert with Bitdefender, used a blog post to describe the problem associated with Bouncer’s limited scanning scope: “There are several other websites from where Android users can install applications. In fact, most malicious applications we discovered were actually hosted on third-party markets and not directly on Google’s (Android) Market.”  Cosoi also cited Bouncer’s sole emulation of apps uploaded to the Android Market as a problem, and that it is likely many apps will behave as they should in a simulated environment, but turn malicious on actual mobile devices.

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