Developing for Android is like being a (demonetized) YouTuber
Many are aware that some YouTubers are unhappy with how YouTube operates. But are you aware that Android app developers go through similar struggles with Google Play? Let me try and explain everything that’s wrong with Android in a single 20 minutes read.
Android was once considered the better choice of mobile platform for those looking for customizability, powerful features such as true multitasking, support for less common use cases, and higher developer freedom. It was the platform of choice in research and education, because not only are the development tools free and cross-platform, Android was also a very flexible operating system that did not get in the way of experimenting with innovative concepts or messing with the hardware we own. This is changing at an increasingly faster pace.
While major new Android versions used to bring features that got both users and developers excited, since a few versions ago, I dread the moment a new Android version is announced and I find myself looking for courage (heh) to look at the changelogs and developer guidelines for it. And new Android versions are not the only things that make my heart beat faster for the wrong reasons: changes to Google Play Store policies are always a fun moment, too.
Before we dive in any further, a bit of context: Android was not the first mobile OS I used; references to my experiences and experiments with Windows Mobile 6.x are probably scattered around this blog. I started using Android at a time when 4.2 was the latest version, I remember 4.4 being announced shortly after, and that was the version my first Android phone ran until the end of its useful life. Android was the first, and so far only, mobile operating system for which I got seriously invested in app development.
I started messing with Android app development shortly before 6.0 Marshmallow was released, so I am definitely not an old timer who can say he has seen Android evolve from the beginning, and certainly not from the perspective of a developer. Still, I feel like I have witnessed a decade of changes – in big part, because even during my “Windows Mobile experiments” era, I was paying attention to what was happening on the Android side, with phones I couldn’t yet afford to buy (my Windows Mobile “Pocket PCs” were hand-me-downs). I am fully aware of how bad Android was for both users and developers in the 4.x and earlier eras, in part because I still had the opportunity to use these versions, and in part because my apps had to support some of them.
API deprecation and loss of backwards compatibility
With every Android version, Google makes changes to the Android APIs. These APIs are how apps interact with the operating system, and simplifying things a bit, they pretty much define what apps can and can’t do. On top of this, some APIs require permissions, which you agree to when you install apps that use them, and some of these permissions can be allowed or denied by the user as he runs the app (of course, the app can refuse to run if the permissions are denied, but the idea is that it will degrade gracefully and provide at least some functionality without them). This is the case for the APIs that access your contact list or your location.
New Android versions include new APIs and, in the past, barely any changes were made to APIs introduced in previous versions. This meant that applications designed with an older version in mind would still work fine, and developers did not need to immediately redesign their apps with new versions in mind.
In the past two to three years, new Android versions have also began removing APIs and changing how the existing ones work. For example, applications wishing to stay active in the background now have to display a permanent notification, an idea which sounds good in theory, but the end result is having a handful of permanent notifications in your drawer, one for each application that may need to stay active. For example, I have two in my phone: one for the call recorder, and another for the equalizer system. One of my own apps also needs to have a similar notification in Android 8/Oreo and newer, in order to reliably perform Wi-Fi scans to locate the user in specific locations.
In the upcoming Android version 10/Q, Google intends to restrict even more what apps can do. They are removing the ability for apps to access the clipboard, killing an entire category of clipboard management apps (so that you can have a history of what you copied, so that you can sync the clipboard with your other phones and computers, etc.). Currently, all apps can access the clipboard without special permissions, but the correct way to solve this is to add a permission prompt, not to get rid of the API entirely. Applications can no longer turn the Wi-Fi on or off, which prevents automation apps from e.g. turning off the Wi-Fi when you’re driving. They are thinking of entirely preventing apps from accessing arbitrary files in “external storage” (SD cards and the area of internal memory on your phone where screenshots and camera pictures go, and where you put your MP3s, game ROMs for emulation, etc.).
Note that all of these things that they are removing for “security”, could simply be gated around a permission prompt you’d have to accept, as with the contact list, or location. Instead, they decided to remove the abilities entirely – even if users want these features, apps won’t be able to implement them. Existing apps will probably be review-bombed by users who don’t understand why things no longer work after updating to the shiny new Android version.
These changes to existing APIs mean more for users and developers. Applications that worked fine until now may stop working. Developers will need to update their apps to reflect this, implement less user-friendly workarounds, explanation messages, and so on. This takes time, effort, money etc. which would be better spent actually fixing other issues of the apps, or developing new features. For small teams or solo developers, especially those doing app development as a hobby or as a second job, catching up with Google’s latest “trends” can be insurmountable. For example, the change to disallow background services meant that I spent most of my free time during one summer redesigning the architecture of one of my apps, which in turn introduced new bugs, which had to be diagnosed, corrected, etc., and, in the end, said app still needs to show a notification to work properly in recent Android versions.
There are other ways Google can effectively deprecate APIs and thus limit what applications can do, without releasing new Android versions or having to update phones to them. Google can decide that apps that require certain permissions will no longer be allowed on the Play Store. Most notably, Google recently disallowed the SMS and Call Log permissions, which means that apps that look at the user’s call log or messaging history will no longer be allowed on the store.
Apps using these permissions can still be installed by downloading their APKs directly or by using alternative app stores, but they will no longer be allowed on the Play Store. This effectively means that for many apps, the version on the Play Store no longer contains important functionality. For example, call recorders are no longer able to associate numbers with the recordings, and automation apps can no longer use SMS messages as a trigger for actions. Because Google Play is where 99% of people get their apps, this effectively means functionality requiring these permissions is now disallowed, and won’t be available except to a extremely small minority of users who know how to work around these limitations.
The Google Play Store is the YouTube of app developers
Being on the Play Store is starting to feel much like producing content for YouTube, where policy changes can be sudden and announced without much time in advance. On YouTube, producers always have to be on the lookout for what might get a video demonetized, on top of dealing with content claims, both actions promoted by entirely automated, opaque systems. On the Play Store, we need to be constantly looking out for other things that might suddenly get our app pulled or our developer account banned – together with the accounts of everyone who Google decides has anything to do with us:
- Your app can be pulled for “deceptive ads” (this includes, incredibly, linking to your other apps. Also, did you know that asking for donations is prohibited unless you do so through in-app purchases?);
- This can happen even if you don’t have ads (see also the comments on Hacker News)
- Your app can be pulled because some of the permissions it requires for its legitimate use case are no longer allowed;
- Your developer account can be banned by “association with a previously terminated account” (and that’s all they’ll tell you);
- Your application can be sent DMCA takedowns, which Google will ignore even after reaching a resolution with the copyright holder;
- As a last minor annoyance, you have to deal with app reviews which are left by… users… like those who openly admit they never used the app…
And this is just a tiny sample, not even the “best of”, of the horrifying stories that are posted to r/androiddev, every other day. For each of these, there are dozens in the respective “categories”. Sometimes the same stories, or similar ones, also make the rounds in Hacker News. It seems Google is treating Play Store bans and app removals with the same or worse flippancy that online games ban players suspected of cheating. Playing online games isn’t the career of most people who do it, but Android app development is, which leads to the obvious question, what do people do when they are banned?
After writing this, I realize my YouTube analogy is terrible. You see, on YouTube generally one receives strikes, instead of waking up one day to suddenly see their account banned. YouTubers also have the opportunity to profit from the drama caused by the policy changes by “reacting” to them, for example. And while YouTubers typically have the sympathy of their viewers, app developers have to deal with user outrage – because users have no idea, or don’t care, about why we’re being forced to massively degrade the performance and features of our apps. For example, the developer of ACR, a popular call recorder, had to deal with bad app reviews, abuse and profanity among thousands of emails from outraged users after removing the call log permission, and this was after an extensive campaign warning users of the upcoming changes (as a user of ACR, I uninstalled the Play Store version and installed the “unchained” version, which keeps the call log features, through XDA Labs).
As a freelance developer or as a small company, developing for Android is riskier than ever. I can start working on an app idea today and it’s possible that in six months, when it is ready for the initial release, changes to the store policy will have rendered my app unpublishable or have severely affected its functionality… in addition to the aforementioned point about APIs deprecating and changing semantics, requiring constant upkeep of the code to keep up with the latest versions.
If you opened the links above, by now you have probably realized another thing: user support with actual humans is non-existent, and if only their bots were as responsive as Google Assistant… And, if they are not bots, then they are humans which only spit out canned responses, which is just as bad. It is widely known that the best method for getting problems solved with regards to Google Play listings, is to catch the attention of a Google employee on social media.
It seems the level of support Google gives you is correlated to how many people will read your rants about your problems with their platforms. And it’s an exponential correlation, because being big isn’t enough to get a moderate level of support; you must be giant. This is a recurring problem with most Google services, especially if you are not using G Suite (apparently, app developers do not count as “paying customers” when it comes to support). Of all the things I’d like the EU to regulate (and especially, to not regulate, but that’s a story for a different time), the obligation for these mega-corporations to provide actual user support is definitely one of them.
Going back to the probably flawed YouTube analogy, there’s one more parallel to draw: many people believe that in recent years, YouTube has been making changes to both policies, business models and the “algorithm”, that heavily favor the big, already-established creators and make it hard for smaller ones to ever be successful. I believe we are seeing a similar trend on the Google Play Store – just keep in mind you must not analyze an app’s popularity or “level of establishment” by the number of downloads or active users, but by how much profit it generates in ad revenue and IAP cuts.
“Android is open source”
“Android is open source” is the joke of the year – for the fifth consecutive year. While it is true that the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is still a thing, many of the components that make Android recognizable and usable, both from an end user and developer’s perspective, are increasingly closed source.
Apps made by Google are able to do things third-party apps have trouble replicating, no doubt due to the tight-knit interaction between them and the proprietary behemoth that is Google Play Services. This is especially noticeable in the “Google” app itself, Google Assistant, and the Google launcher.
If you install an AOSP build, many things will be missing and many apps – my own ones included – will have trouble running. Projects looking to provide “de-googlified” versions of Android have developed extensive open source replacements for many of the functions provided by Google Play Services. The fact that these replacements had to be community-developed, and the fact that they are very much necessary to run the majority of the popular applications, show that nowadays, Android can be considered open source as much as in the sense that it can be considered a Linux distro.
AOSP, on its own, is effectively controlled by Google. The existence of AOSP is important, if nothing else, to define common APIs that the different “OEM flavors” of Android must support – ensuring, with minor caveats, that we can develop for Android and not for “Samsung’s Android” or “Nokia’s Android”. But what APIs come and what APIs go is completely decided by Google, and the same is true for the overall system architecture, security model, etc. This means Google can bend AOSP to their will, stripe it of features and move things into proprietary components as much as they want.
Speaking of OEMs and inter-device compatibility, it’s obvious that this push towards implementing important functionality in Google Play Services and making the whole operating system operate around Google’s components has to do with keeping the “OEM flavors” under control. A positive effect for users and developers is that features and security patches become available even on devices that don’t receive OEM updates, or only receive updates for the major Android version they came with, and therefore would never receive the new features in the latest major release. A negative effect is that said changes can affect even old Android versions overnight and completely at Google’s discretion, much like restrictions on what APIs and permissions apps on the Play Store are allowed to use.
Google’s guiding light when it comes to Android openness seems to gravitate towards only opening the Android source as much as necessary for OEMs to make it run on their devices. We are not at that extreme point – mainly because the biggest OEMs have enough leverage to prevent that from happening. I feel that at this point, if Google were able to make Android entirely closed source, they would do it. I wonder what future Fuschia holds for us in this regard.
So secure you can’t use it
The justifications for many of the changes in later Android versions and Google Play policies usually fall into one of two types: “security” and “user experience”, with the latter including “battery life”. I’m not sure for whom Google is designing their “user experience” in recent years, but it certainly isn’t for “proficient users” like me. Let’s, however, talk about security first.
Security should be proportionally strong to what it is protecting. With each major Android version, we see a bigger focus on security; for example, it’s becoming harder and harder to root a phone, short of installing a custom ROM that includes superuser functionality from the start. One might argue this is desirable, but then you notice security and privacy have also been used as the excuse to disallow the use of certain permissions like the call log and messaging access, or to remove APIs including the external storage one.
This increase in security strength makes sense: security is now stronger because we are also storing more valuable information in our phones, from “old-fashioned” personal information about us and our acquaintances, to biometric information like fingerprint, facial and retinal scans. Of course, and this is probably the part Google et al. are most worried about, we’re also storing entire payment systems, the keys for DRM castles, and so on.
Before finishing my point about security, let’s talk a bit about user experience. User experience is another popular excuse for making changes while limiting or altogether removing certain features. If something has to be particularly complicated (or even “insecure”) in order to support the use cases of 1% of the users, it often gets simplified… while the “particularly complicated” or “insecure” system is stripped entirely, leaving the aforementioned 1% with a system that no longer supports their use cases. This doesn’t sound too bad, right? However, if you repeat the process enough times, as Google is bound to do in order to keep releasing new versions of their software (so that their employees can get their bonuses), tying the hands of 1% of the users at a time, you are probably going to be left with something that lets you watch ads only… and probably Google ads at that, I guess. You didn’t need to make phone calls, right? After all, the person on the other side might be pulling a social engineering scheme on you, or something…
Strong security and good user experience are hard to combine together. It seems that permission prompts do not provide sufficient security nor acceptable user experience, because apparently it’s easier to remove the permissions altogether than to let users have a choice.
User choice is what all of this boils down to, really. Android used to give me the choice of being slightly insecure in exchange for having more powerful and innovative features in the apps I install, than in the competing mobile platforms. It used to give me the choice of running 10 apps in the background and having my battery last half a day as a result, but now, if I want to do so, I must deal with 10 ongoing notifications. I used to be able to share files among apps as I do on my desktop, but apparently that is an affront to good security too. I used to be able to log the Wi-Fi networks in my vicinity every minute, but in Android 9 even that was limited to a handful of scans per hour, killing some legitimate use cases including my master’s thesis project in the process. Fortunately, in academia we can just pretend the latest Android version is 8.
Smart cards, including SIM cards, were invented to containerize the secure portion of systems. Authentication, attestation, all that was meant to be done there, such that the bigger system could be less secure and more flexible. Some time in the last two decades, multiple entities decided it was best (maybe it provided “better user experience”?) that important security operations be moved into the application processor, including entire contactless payment systems. Things like SafetyNet were created. My argument in this section goes way beyond rooting, but if my phone is rooted and one of the apps to which I granted root permission steals my banking details, … apparently the banking app shouldn’t have been allowed to run in the first place? Imagine if the online banking of my bank refused to open on my desktop because it knows I know the password for the administrator account.
Still on the topic of security, by limiting what apps distributed on the Play Store are allowed to do and ending support for legitimate use cases, Google ends up encouraging side-loading (direct APK download and installation). This is undesirable from a security point of view, and I don’t think I need to explain why.
Our phones are definitely more secure now, but so much “security” is crippling the use cases of people who do more than binge-watch YouTube and their social network feeds. We should also keep in mind that many people are growing up with smartphones and tablets alone, and “just use your desktop for those advanced tasks” is therefore not an answer. It’s time for my retarded proposal of the week, but what about not storing so much security-sensitive stuff in our phones, so that we don’t need so much security, and thus can actually get back the flexibility and “security pitfalls” we had before? Android, please let me shoot myself in the foot like you used to.
Lack of realistic alternatives
This evolution of Android towards appealing to the masses (or appealing to Google’s definition of what the general public should be allowed to do) would not worry me so much if, as a user, I had a viable mobile OS alternative. On the Apple side, we have iOS, whose appeal from the start was to provide a “it just works”, secure platform, with limited flexibility but equally limited margin for error. Such a platform is actually a godsend for many people, who certainly make up the majority of users, I don’t doubt. Such a platform doesn’t work for me, because as I said, I need to be able to shoot myself in the foot if I want to: let me have 2 hours of battery life if I want, let my own apps spy on my location if I want.
This was fine for many years, because we had Android, which let us do this kind of stuff. It just so happens that because of AOSP, and because there were no other open source or licensable platforms with traction, Android ended up being the de-facto standard for every smartphone that isn’t an Apple one. On the low-end, Android is effectively the only option. Of course, this led to Android having the larger market share. Since “everyone” uses it now, there’s pressure to copy the iOS model of “it just works” and “safe for people with self-harm tendencies” – you can’t hurt yourself even if you wanted.
Efforts to introduce an Android competitor have been laughable, at best. Windows Phone/Windows Mobile failed in part because of a weak and possibly too late entry, combined with a dubious “vision” and bad management decisions on Microsoft’s part. In the end, what Microsoft had was actually good – if there weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be still plenty of die-hard WP/WM fans – but getting there so late (and with so many mixed signals about the future of the platform) means developers were never sufficiently captivated, and without the top 100 apps in there, users won’t find the platform any good, no matter how excellent it is from a technical standpoint. Obviously, it does not help that a significant number of those “top 100 apps” are Google properties; in fact, the only reason Google has their apps on iOS is because, well, iOS was there already when they arrived on the scene.
If even a big player with stupid deep pockets like Microsoft can’t introduce a third mobile platform, the result of smaller-scale attempts like Firefox OS is quite predictable. These smaller attempts have an additional problem, which is finding hardware to run on. It doesn’t help that you can’t change the OS on a phone the same way you can on a PC. In fact, in the long gone year of 2015, I was already ranting about the lack of standardization in smartphone hardware. It’s actually fun to go back at that post, made when Android 4.4 was the latest version, and see how my perception of Android has changed.
I should also note that if a successful Android alternative appears, it will definitely run Android apps, probably through a compatibility layer. In a way, Android set the standard for apps much in the same way that 15 years ago, IE6 was setting web standards in the worst way possible. Did someone say antitrust?
Android, and therefore Google, set the standard – and the implementation – for what we can and can’t do with a smartphone, except when Apple introduces a major innovation that OEMs and Google are compelled to quickly implement in Android. These days, it seems Apple is stalling a bit in innovation in the smartphone front, so Google is taking the opportunity to “innovate” by making Android more similar to iOS, turning it into a cushioned, limited, kid-safe operating system that ties the hands of developers and proficient users.
Simultaneously, Google is solving the problem of excessive shovelware and even a bit of malware on the Play Store, by adding more automation, being even less open about their actions, and being as deaf as ever. Because it’s hard to understand whether apps are using certain permissions legitimately or not – and because no user shall be trusted to decide that by themselves – useful applications, from call recording tools, to automation, to literally any app that might want to open arbitrary files in the user storage, are being “made impossible” by the deprecation and removal of said permissions and APIs.
We desperately need an Android alternative, but the question of who will develop, use and target said alternative remains unanswered. What I know, is that I no longer feel happy as an Android developer, I no longer feel happy as an Android user, and I’m not likely at all to recommend Android to my friends and family.
Edited at 2:56 March 28th UTC to add clarification about Android clipboard access.
See the discussion for this article on Hacker News, r/AndroidDev, r/Android