When we published a piece reporting on the recent decision of game developer Bithack to pull its popular title Apparatus from the Amazon Appstore, we contacted Amazon asking for comment on the whole situation.
Earlier this week, Amazon got back to us and wanted to sit down and discuss the Appstore and some of the issues that developers and customers alike have had. While Amazon could not specifically discuss the complaints of Bithack for confidentiality reasons, they were able to generally talk about some of the concerns Bithack raised.
Today, I spoke with Aaron Rubenson, Category Leader (essentially, head of business) of the Amazon Appstore. We had a discourse on some of those concerns that allowed Amazon to clarify (and justify) a few things in regard to the Appstore. This article combines what I heard from Aaron with my own commentary in order to provide context and make the whole thing somewhat understandable - as the conversation itself probably wouldn't have read too well. So, let's get down to it.
If you recall from the Apparatus article, various developers have complained that the Amazon Appstore - particularly during the Free App of the Day promotion - seems to allow scores of customers to download and install apps and games which are incompatible with their respective device. The developer of Apparatus, in particular, claimed that Amazon was not utilizing the device manifest filter he provided as part of his application. He noted that some obsolete devices (which he had never even heard of) were able to download and install Apparatus, only to get an inevitable force close.
This, then, results in scores of 1-star reviews from upset customers who can’t automatically initiate a refund (ala the Market), but we’ll talk about that a bit later. While Amazon wouldn’t address Bithack’s issue directly, they responded to and expanded on the two larger issues Bithack raised. Kind of.
Device Manifest Filter
Aaron was able to share some information that you can draw your own conclusions from about how Amazon does device filtering. Amazon does, as part of the application testing process, make use of that device manifest filter provided by developers as a part of every app or game. But it was implied (note: nothing was explicitly admitted) that Amazon doesn’t consider that filter the final word in terms of which devices can run a particular app. They “do things a little differently.”
Exactly what steps Amazon takes in determining compatibility and their process in making those determinations, they weren’t able to share. But, they did acknowledge the existence of customer reviews from users that have downloaded and installed applications from the Appstore which are clearly incompatible with their respective devices. So, take what you will from that.
Purchasing From A Non-Compatible Device
In the Amazon Appstore web interface, regardless of your device, you can purchase any app from the Appstore. You’ll receive a warning if your device is incompatible with an app you’re attempting to purchase, but unlike the Android Web Market, Amazon will still let you make the purchase. However, if you then try to download and install the app on that incompatible device, the Amazon Appstore application will prevent you from doing so. But, you’re definitely given fair warning.
So, to make it crystal clear: the Amazon Appstore won’t let you download or install an app that Amazon deems incompatible with your device.
But why does Amazon even let you purchase incompatible apps, some have asked. There’s actually a really good reason: to take advantage of the Free App of the Day, special discounts, and other temporary offers so that you may download and install the app at a later date when you have a compatible piece of hardware. This really is kind of nice - particularly if there’s a killer deal on a tablet-specific app, and you don’t own a tablet, but plan to in the future.
Refunds have been a touchy subject in regard to the Appstore since the day of its announcement. Amazon, like a certain other highly popular curated app store, has a no-return policy. It also doesn’t allow developers to initiate refunds to customers on their own. This has caused some friction for developers who are far more used to the Market’s 15-minute window, as well as the ability to manually refund any one customer’s purchase.
This means upset customers often find themselves with no recourse when they download and install an app that either doesn’t work, or is simply incompatible with their device (check out the 1-star reviews of any popular game title in the Appstore - you’ll find such complaints). But this isn’t quite the case. Amazon wants to make it known that, should you download an app that truly does not function or which is incompatible with your device, you can contact Amazon Customer Service and ask for a full refund. Typically, they’ll give it to you - you just need to ask.
Why doesn’t Amazon allow developers to make that call on an individual basis? They want a consistent customer service policy across the Appstore, and as the “seller” of those applications (as opposed to the Market, which is more of a listing service), Amazon believes they should be the ones providing that service. Is this reasoning completely compelling? I wouldn't say it's totally convincing - but, I can see where they’re coming from.
In regard to the decision not to have a return window, Amazon claims that providing a time-based refund window hurts sales for developers with apps that users often only need once or twice. This is the same sort of reasoning Google provided when it reduced the Market return window to 15 minutes, and it doesn’t sound like a philosophy Amazon’s too willing to budge on.
But what about getting in touch with a developer to give feedback? There seems to have been a lot of issues, particularly for the developer of Bithack, in this arena. In my opinion, customer-developer communication is still a somewhat problematic area in the Appstore.
The developer of Apparatus was rather perplexed by the precipitous drop in customer feedback his game received once he moved it to the Appstore, aside from the many reviews written by customers.
He can likely thank the lack of a “Contact the Developer” button anywhere in the Appstore application or web interface. Amazon makes getting in touch with a developer a less than intuitive task, and provides no dedicated mechanism for direct contact. While developers can insert contact information manually in the Developer Info section of their respective app page on Amazon’s web interface, it’s fairly far down the page, and leaves customers with a process that takes more than one click in order to initiate contact.
In the mobile application, there is a well-labeled “Feedback” button on every mobile app page. Unfortunately, the Feedback button doesn’t exactly scream “Contact the Developer,” I think we can all agree. When we see a feedback option, we probably assume it’s referring to feedback for Amazon (which, considering the feedback options you’re presented with, it mostly is). But, any relevant feedback received regarding the app will be sent along to the developer - so don’t be afraid to use it.
Each app page also does have what’s called a “Discussion” area, where users can create threads and developers can respond, but it’s near the bottom of the page, where no one but the developer is likely to look in the first place. Clearly, developer-customer communication is an area of the Appstore Amazon is still refining, and, as Aaron told me, is something they’re constantly listening to feedback on and discussing.
And what about submittable application crash reports and logs? Well, Aaron couldn’t discuss specific plans about the future of the Appstore, but there wasn’t exactly a denial that this was something they had been exploring. And really, it only makes sense that they would.
Still, obviously most negative feedback will end up in the review pile, which is what we discussed next. Why? Because Amazon allows fairly long reviews to be submitted (very much unlike the Market), and the reviews section of an app page is probably where most people head to immediately. Unfortunately, developers have no way of responding to these reviews, though there are some major concerns about implementing such a feature, as Aaron explained to me.
Amazon’s customer review system is definitely a point of pride for the company, and it’s one of the major reasons for Amazon’s success over the years. I love Amazon’s review system for retail products, it helps you find the best possible product that fits your needs, because you can rely on the many helpful words of satisfied (or dissatisfied) customers.
Why are Amazon’s reviews so helpful? Because they’re community-moderated and the maker of each product can’t go in and start refuting and denying the claims of customers. It keeps the feedback “pure.” This is an extremely good point - as allowing developers to comment on user reviews could unleash a tidal wave of conflicting information and developer-customer flame wars, making reviews useless.
App Review Period
Finally, we talked about Amazon's app submission and review process - which some developers have claimed is a bit lengthy. Amazon refers to its vetting of candidate apps for the Appstore as “testing,” rather than review. Why? Amazon’s testing process is all about ensuring compatibility, safety, and functionality. Amazon isn’t out looking to enforce best practices or a consistent user experience, but rather to ensure that every application published actually works, doesn’t contain illicit or infringing software, and doesn’t compromise the safety of a user’s information.
This takes time. While Amazon does try hard to ensure updates to applications are pushed out more quickly than initial releases, some testing is still done on every submission to the Appstore. This takes more time. Aaron told me that while he definitely sympathizes with developers who are forced to wait for this process to complete, they’re generally happy how it’s worked out so far.
Not to mention, a couple weeks is still a lot quicker than Apple is, somewhat infamously, known to be during its app review process.
That about covers the length of my discussion with the Category Leader of the Amazon Appstore, Aaron Rubenson. And honestly, I can say I learned a fair bit. It’s always good to get both sides of the story - whether or not you agree with one in particular.