Congratulations: You've finally developed your million-dollar app. You took a great idea, implemented it, built it into a polished UI, and tested it until you tracked down every last bug. Now it's ready for public release, so you can sit back, relax and ... earn just 70% of what users pay for your software? That doesn't sound right. Yet it's a position that mobile app developers everywhere find themselves in, one that's perched somewhere on the intersection between wildly unfair and mild extortion.
As you're probably aware, Google takes a 30% cut of all software sales going through the Play Store — that counts for both for the initial sale of apps, as well as any supplementary in-app purchases. In the context of the industry, this practice doesn't seem too outlandish; Apple does the same thing with iOS software distribution through its App Store, and we see similar arrangements in the PC sphere on platforms like Steam.
But just because it's commonplace, does that mean it's fair, or even right? How did we get to this place where paying a developer 70 cents on the dollar for their hard work seems OK?
Buying software used to mean a trip to the mall, with retailers and distributors taking a big cut. Now with digital sales, is Google's 30% take still fair? (Image: Mike Mozart)
Back before the days when software distribution was primarily online, developers had it a lot worse. First you had to find a publisher, who was going to want their cut. Then you had the cost of physical media to consider, as well as designing and manufacturing some attractive packaging. You had to pay to ship your software to stores, and to even get it on shelves meant giving retailers their slice of the pie. And of course, with all these parties involved and them wanting to ensure as high sales as possible, you'd probably also be paying for an expensive advertising campaign.
In the end, the developer would be very lucky to end up with even 20% of the ultimate sale price (and forget about that if we're talking console games, with royalties to the console manufacturer knocking things under 10% easily).
But that's not the world we live in today, and so many of those costs have either seriously diminished or become irrelevant altogether. There's no need to fight for retailer shelf space, no unsold merchandise taking up space in warehouses, and no need to pay so many middlemen along the way — heck, why even bother with a publisher when you can be a one-man app studio yourself?
A lot of people will look at how far things have shifted in the favor of developers and be perfectly happy with the current arrangement. But just because it's better doesn't mean it's fair, and I just can't justify the size of Google's take.
Selling an app through the Play Store may free developers from the burden of dealing with payment processing and file distribution, but these are still relatively minor expenses, not coming close to adding up to 30% of an app's full value. Sure, developers are paying for the visibility they get in the Play Store, but even that's not a great deal for them, and unless your app is one of the most popular in its genre, good luck having users discover it organically, with anything less than a targeted search.
So what are developers actually getting for their money? Well, we recently saw the high-profile case of a major app doing an end-run around Play Store distribution, with Epic Games electing not to involve Google for the release of Fortnite on Android.
The beginning of the end of Android apps, to hear some theories.
When this plan was revealed, I can't tell you how many hot takes I read about how Epic was undermining the security of Android as a platform by daring to encourage users to install software from non-Play sources. Despite this ability being baked in to Android, the idea of encouraging casual users to do so was somehow tantamount to opening the floodgates of malware and risking the erosion of user confidence in Android as a secure, trustworthy OS.
That kind of BS is so hot and steaming that I could develop a profitable side business in thermoelectric power generation were I able to harness it.
There's nothing inherently safe or unsafe about installing software from a particular source, and all software carries with it a degree of risk. You have to trust the developer's intentions, have faith that any unplanned glitches don't introduce catastrophic security vulnerabilities, and feel secure that the software hasn't been tampered with between leaving the developer's hands and ending up in yours. A good platform like Android will take many steps to minimize these risks, but suggesting that a walled-garden approach to software distribution is either necessary or fully effective lacks evidentiary support.
When it ultimately emerged that Epic's Fortnite installer did indeed contain a security vulnerability, you could almost hear the smugness in the reports of all the nay-sayers who decried Epic's bold experiment. But while unfortunate and sloppy, there's nothing in the nature of that bug that legitimately casts doubt on the ability of third parties to successfully distribute software outside the Play Store.
What bothers me most about this incident are the attitudes I've been hearing that suggest that Google's 30% Play Store take is in many cases a tax we pay for Android security — that software distribution without central oversight is inherently dangerous, and that no price is too high to pay for peace of mind.
I don't expect to convince anyone who subscribes to such beliefs that they're utterly wrong-minded in their approach, and if they really believe that sticking to Play Store software is the only proper way to use an Android phone, that's their choice to make.
But I absolutely refuse to look ill on developers who rightfully question just how much value they're really getting from Google's software-distribution services, and choose to go their own way. It's easier than ever for developers to promote and distribute their own mobile software, and I can't — I won't look down on anyone encouraging users to tap that scary "unknown sources" box.
Maybe if Google had its sights set a little lower — a 10% fee on Play Store content — I wouldn't even be feeling the itch to take a principled stand. But right now, users and devs alike are just throwing money away (and into Google's pockets) for vague promises of order and security that aren't worth this steep price.