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Android software piracy rampant despite Google's efforts to curb

Long-simmering problem seems to be growing

By , Network World
September 29, 2010 07:03 AM ET

Network World - Android’s growing success as a smartphone operating system is bringing a long-simmering problem to light: A lot of Android applications are being pirated. The openness of the platform has made it easy for people to steal applications without paying for them.

Until very recently, it was easy to strip rudimentary copy protection from applications offered on the Android Market Web site, and then use, offer or even sell the software as your own. The problem isn’t new, and Google has taken much more aggressive steps in 2010 to make it harder to pirate Android apps.

Google defends Android Market license server, despite reported hack

But the growing popularity of the OS with enterprise users and developers is creating greater urgency, as pirated code robs developers of revenue and the incentive to remain committed Android. (See Android Set to Rule Over Apple and RIM Operating Systems.)

A Google spokesman e-mailed a statement that essentially reiterates the company’s long-standing position. “On all computing devices, desktop or mobile, users necessarily entrust at least some of their information to the developer of the application,” according to the spokesman. “Android has taken steps to inform users of this trust relationship and to limit the amount of trust a user must grant to any given application developer. We also provide developers with best practices about how to handle user data.”

The statement noted that when installing an application, users see a screen that clearly states what data the application has permission to access. “Users must explicitly approve this access” to complete the installation and can uninstall the application anytime. “Any third party code included in an application is bound by these same permissions. We consistently advise users to only install apps they trust,” the statement concluded.

Network World’s Android Angle blogger, Mark Murphy, bluntly noted a year ago that “Right now, it is very straightforward — if you publish on Android Market, your application will be made available for free download outside of the Market.” He added, “This is part and parcel of having an open environment like Android.” The then-current Android Market copy protection mechanisms “have been demonstrated to be ineffective.”

One Android developer, with the handle Chimaera, reported his first app was pirated within a month, and the pirates’ download statistics were more impressive than his own. The crowning indignity: Trying to get file servers to remove the pirated software was frustratingly complicated. “They made you feel as [if] you are the offender,” he wrote.

What’s especially galling to professional developers is watching sales plunge as piracy rates soar. “The current issue we face with Android is rampant piracy, and we’re working to provide hacking counter measures, a difficult task,” says Jean Gareau, founder of VidaOne, an Austin, Texas, software company that specializes in health and fitness applications for a variety of operating systems.

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