Google has never used the walled-garden approach to app distribution that Apple uses. If you want to make an Android app and hand out APKs on your own website, that’s totally fine by Google. There’s a story floating around the web today that Google has just gotten around to adding some sort of heavy-handed DRM to all Android apps, but this is based mainly on speculation and incorrect assumptions.
At the heart of this story is a very developer-oriented piece of news. Google has started including a string of metadata in apps that verifies authenticity. Some have chosen to describe this as DRM that would prevent you from installing unknown APKs (known as sideloading), but that’s unproven and frankly rather silly.
The allegation is that a future version of Android will look for this metadata string to verify that an app has been obtained from the Play Store. If not, the APK would fail to install. That would be a vaguely Apple-y model for app distribution. However, this premise is completely unfounded. Calling this DRM (digital rights management) is just wrong because it’s not managing anyone’s rights. Not Google’s, not developers’, and not yours.
Google made its intentions clear when it announced the new metadata feature. This feature is really about increasing developer access to emerging markets. Many of us don’t know what it’s like to use a smartphone with extremely limited data access. In some countries, cellular customers only get pay-as-you-go data plans, so every byte they download costs money. Naturally, finding ways to lower data usage is important. That’s one of the main goals of Google’s Android Go platform, in fact.
One of the ways people keep their data usage low is by sharing APKs directly instead of downloading them from the Play Store. Adding metadata allows Google to link those APKs with the Play Store so users can get updates and account licensing. Yes, Google already has basic app licensing in the Play Store. Paid apps reach out to Google to verify they’re running on an account that has purchased the content. If anything, the metadata makes Google’s existing DRM better for users, because it’ll work offline and free apps will automatically be added to your Google library when sideloaded.
The new metadata system isn’t some new way to annoy you with restrictive DRM or keep you from sideloading APKs. It’s just a way of making apps more sharable. No need to freak out.
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