That question was answered yesterday when Google announced Android Market, a content deployment channel that will allow users to find and install new software. The Android Market consists of a web-based distribution service hosted entirely on Google's infrastructure and a specialized client application that will run on Android handsets and provide users with direct access to the service. Users will be able to obtain new applications from the Android Market over the air and install them on their devices.
In an entry posted on the Official Android developer blog, Google mobile platform program manager Eric Chu says that the Android Market will be open to all third-party developers and applications will not have to be vetted prior to inclusion. The Android Market will only include software that is available at no cost during the initial beta, but Google plans to implement support for commercial distribution shortly after the official launch. Google will also incrementally add additional features such as support for versioning and analytics.
"Developers will be able to make their content available on an open service hosted by Google that features a feedback and rating system similar to YouTube," wrote Chu. "We chose the term 'market' rather than 'store' because we feel that developers should have an open and unobstructed environment to make their content available. Similar to YouTube, content can debut in the marketplace after only three simple steps: register as a merchant, upload and describe your content and publish it."
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The Android Market offers much more freedom and inclusiveness than Apple's App Store, but there are still some minor limitations imposed by Google's model. Hosting the entire service on Google's infrastructure creates a central point of failure as well as a central point of control. These are the most significant differences between the Android Market and conventional Linux package systems such as APT.
Conventional Linux package systems use globally distributed mirrors so that software remains accessible in the event of outages at any one source. Conventional package systems also allow third parties to host their own repositories which can then be made accessible to end users through the standard package management tools. These advantages don't appear to be present in the Android Market distribution model.
Google's Android Market looks a bit like the cathedral to APT's bazaar, but it is debatable whether the differences will be all that relevant in practice. Concerns about a centralized point of failure, for instance, are probably not applicable. Unlike regular Linux distributors (and unlike Apple, whose MobileMe launch suffered uncharacteristic mishaps) Google has built its entire business around high-availability Internet infrastructure and has nearly unparalleled expertise and resources in this area. Volunteer mirror hosts are probably not going to be needed to keep the Android Market operating smoothly.
The centralized point of control, however, is an issue that deserves some consideration. There is a certain valuable degree of empowerment that would come from being able to self-host an independent repository that users can access through the default package management software. This would reduce dependency on Google and make the platform more open and vendor-neutral.
Ideally, it would be most advantageous if Google were to open the protocol it uses for the package tool and allow third parties to create alternate implementations of the Android Market web service. In addition to bringing a more even balance of power to the Android software landscape, that would also be a very useful feature for independent Android derivatives that want to have their own software ecosystems with a more conventional Linux model.
The Android Market system will put quite a bit of power in Google's hands and force users and third-party developers to place faith in the company's oft-repeated "do no evil" mantra. Despite these weaknesses, the Android Market still looks like its going to be an extremely rich hosted distribution system that will offer a lot of value to third-party developers and ease of use to end users. We can also look forward to seeing a strong selection of applications available at launch, if the recently announced results of Google's Android developer challenge are any indication.