Piracy is nothing new. Content creators have had to deal with bootlegs, knockoffs, and illegitimate copies since the dawn of time. In fact, recent reports show that the rate of piracy on Google hit a record high in 2014.
Or in other words, piracy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It should come as no surprise that Android is also overrun with pirates. But just how bad is the problem? What effects does it have on the app atmosphere? And how does it impact the mindset of app developers? Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t look so good.
Android App Piracy Is Rampant
Up until last month, the mobile piracy discussion was a relatively quiet hum punctuated by sporadic grumblings across the blogosphere. But when UsTwo tweeted a somewhat misleading statistic about their app’s piracy rates, the discussion flared back to life.
Interesting fact: Only 5% of Monument Valley installs on Android are paid for. 40% on iOS. There’s a sneak peak of data!
— ustwogames (@ustwogames) January 5, 2015
Does that mean Android suffers from a 95% piracy rate? Not exactly. UsTwo admitted that the figure wasn’t entirely accurate since a single purchase can often translate into multiple installs (e.g. across several devices). Plus, the numbers aren’t adjusted for the several “free download” campaigns that they’ve ran in the past.
But what we can’t forget is that pirates on Android have been a serious issue for many years. According to Android Authority, only 10% of the apps that were downloaded in 2012 were actually purchased, indicating that the rate of piracy was indeed somewhere around 90% — even back then.
Regardless of the exact number, one thing is for certain: piracy on Android is huge.
Some may remember the case of Dead Trigger, a mobile game that debuted with a $0.99 price tag on both Android and iOS. After being hit by such an unbelievably high piracy rate, the developers had no choice but to make the Android version free.
How high is “unbelievably high”? They didn’t provide any numbers, so we can’t know for sure, but it was significant enough to force a change in their revenue model.
And in 2013, a report by SlashGear showed a 95% piracy rate for Android games while the iOS counterparts of those same games showed a 5% piracy rate. To be fair, this is data from a single developer and likely isn’t representative of the entire industry, but it is a data point that shows how vast the disparity can be.
That being said, when so many sources claim that pirates make up around 90-95% of their userbase, you have to wonder if those numbers do indicate a wider trend.
Why Is Piracy So Prevalent on Android?
Because it’s free, duh!
While that’s definitely true, it doesn’t explain why Android users are much more likely to pirate their apps than iOS users. Is there something inherent to Android that makes it easier to pirate? Or worse, is there an aspect that perhaps even encourages piracy?
According to most, the answer is a resounding yes!
Matt Gemmell made some fantastic points when he explored the Android piracy landscape. His points boil down to this: Android users aren’t pirating due to frustration (e.g. inability to obtain what they want) or due to monetary considerations (e.g. apps are too expensive); they’re doing it because Android is designed for piracy.
The open philosophy of Android means pirating is just too easy. When you give users that much freedom and control, it’s inevitable that they’ll find workarounds. Meanwhile, iOS is a closed ecosystem with stricter regulations, making it much more difficult — but not impossible — for users to sideload illegitimate apps.
We also have to consider the actual users. The kinds of people who buy into the iOS environment are fundamentally different from the kinds of people who buy Android devices. I’m not trying to start a flame war. This is statistical fact.
Generally speaking, Android users are more savvy with technology and likely to fiddle with their device beyond a surface level. Android users are also more conservative with their money. On the other hand, iOS users tend to be more affluent, more likely to be content with their devices “as is”, and less likely to tinker with workarounds.
In other words, Android users want things for free and are clever enough to know how to get those things for free.
The Dangers of Pirating Android Apps
The unfortunate truth about Android piracy is that it’s causing some detrimental effects on the overall app ecosystem. If it continues like this into the coming years, we may find the Google Play Store turning into just a shell of what it is today.
The effects of piracy are harmful to developers in more ways than lost money.
For example, Play Store rankings. There are several factors that determine an app’s rank, including the “newness” of the app, the scoring and reviews, but also the number of times it’s installed every day. That last one is really important.
To pirate an app, you need to download an illegitimate version of the APK, and that illegitimate version isn’t downloaded from the Play Store — it’s downloaded elsewhere. These downloads from third-party sources aren’t counted as part of the Play Store stats.
This means that the app’s rank — and thus its visibility — takes a hit. While it’s typically argued that piracy actually increases visibility, that argument doesn’t hold true in cases like this where visibility mostly comes from one or two main resources (e.g. the Play Store).
Is it any wonder why we’ve seen a huge shift towards freemium models with in-app purchases? By keeping the download and installation free, developers are able to corral their installation stats on the Play Store.
Pirating apps can be dangerous for the user as well. In one word: malware.
In 2012, a study by F-Secure showed that over 99% of Android malware instances came from a source outside of the Play Store. While Google isn’t as strict as Apple as far as approval for which apps can show up on the store, they’re still good about keeping malicious apps out of the picture.
When you start installing APKs from elsewhere, you lose that layer of security. That risk alone is why we recommend against cracked Android apps.
Note: If you suspect that you have malware on your device, or if you don’t know how to tell if you are infected, check out these signs of Android malware infection.
And There’s No End In Sight
Is there anything developers can do about this? Yes and no. While there are a few steps that can be taken to make the cracking process less convenient, a determined pirate will be able to break through any kind of app protection if given enough time.
In that sense, this whole issue is reminiscent of digital rights management (DRM) and how ineffective it is when it comes to piracy prevention. The only way to reduce piracy on Android is to tackle the root problems: 1) how easy it is to pirate and 2) how willing the users are to pirate.
But since that would require a complete shift in the Android philosophy, I don’t expect to see that happen anytime soon.
If you pirate Android apps, why do you do it? What would convince you to stop? Do you think it’s even a problem? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!