Some Amazon Appstore Apps Require Rooting, AT&T Need Not Apply

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Amazon announced its own “Amazon Appstore for Android” this week, and a couple of notes from the company caught my attention*. The first is that the company is selling some apps that require users to root their Android devices before they’ll work, and the second is a warning to those on AT&T’s network that Ma Bell doesn’t support apps downloaded from Amazon.

Both of these warnings/restrictions serve to nicely highlight both a weakness and a benefit in Google’s open Android platform compared to Apple’s curated “walled garden” iOS ecosystem. On the benefit side, users have an array of choices for where and how to get their Android apps.

On the detriment side, those choices mean there is no single place to go to find everything, and even mainstream and legit choices like a store operated by retailing giant Amazon includes apps that the vast majority of users can’t (or shouldn’t) install, making the online market potentially dangerous, likely confusing, and, in some cases, useless.

Ma FAIL

On Amazon’s “Getting Started with the Amazon Appstore” page, the company lists three “Download Restrictions.” The first is that Android devices for AT&T’s network can’t download or install apps from Amazon’s store.

“AT&T Wireless does not support the purchase of applications from the Amazon Appstore for Android,” Amazon said.

This may sound like it’s more of a suggestion than a restriction, but digging down a couple of links deeper into Amazon’s site, I found different wording: “If you have an AT&T phone or tablet, you currently can’t install the Amazon Appstore or purchase apps from it.”

Amazon said, however, that AT&T is, “working to allow customers to install the Amazon Appstore and purchase apps from it,” so it looks like this could change at some point. The company has also linked to what appears to be a third party website to be notified when AT&T has this worked out, if you’re interested.

Still, this is part and parcel to the wide open nature of the Android platform. With great freedom of choice comes some incompatibility and many more potential points of failure. Many people will gladly trade those weaknesses for the tradeoff in freedom, while many others will see the “It Just Works” nature of Apple’s curated walled garden as offering the better experience.

Rootboy Slim

The second download restriction I found (there is also a heretofore unmentioned third restriction that the store is only offered in the U.S.) is more…ominous, for lack of a better word.

Amazon wrote, “Some apps will only work on an Android device that has root-level permissions. You should only download these apps if you are certain your device is rooted. Amazon.com does not encourage you to root your phone.”

“Rooting” an Android device is similar (indeed, it’s almost precisely analogous) to jailbreaking an iPhone or iPad. It’s basically the process of breaking through software restrictions on your smartphone so that you, the user, has root access to the entire OS and your device’s hardware.

This gives the user full control over their device, and it allows the user to install any kind of software they wish, to make modifications to the OS itself, and to access everything your phone has to offer (carriers, especially Verizon, have a long track record of artificially blocking off parts of the devices they sell to either limit what users can do or force them to pay for services offered by that carrier).

Of course, the downside of rooting an Android device (or jailbreaking your iPhone) is that third party software also has full access to the OS and hardware. Many of the software restrictions in place on all smartphones are there for the sake of security. Giving you root access runs the risk of giving the world root access, and that means your device could more easily be hacked and/or taken over by the bad guys.

Amazon Appstore for AndroidAmawhat?

So why is Amazon selling software that requires rooting your Android device? The short answer, of course, is “because they can,” but this is a very questionable position for a mainstream retailer to put itself in.

Let’s start with the company’s own verbiage and reexamine the last sentence of the restriction I quoted above: “Amazon.com does not encourage you to root your phone.”

Amazon is selling you an app that requires you to do something they don’t encourage you to do. That’s ballsy at best, and fishy at worst. Sure, that sentence is just there as a bit of legal CYA, but it’s necessary because rooting your device does carry some amount of risk for the user.

Apple to Oranges

Which brings me to my last point about the pros and cons of the open system vs. the walled garden. Rooting is necessary for some Android devices if their owners want to do utilize everything their device was equipped to do. This can be anything from being able to update the OS itself (which I find mind boggling) to being able to access a built-in GPS or other services.

Carriers have their own agenda when they sell you a device, and this is why Apple’s iPhone was so incredibly disruptive. Apple took the carrier’s power of setting that agenda away (and yes, they also took some power away from users, but keep reading) — there’s nothing on the iPhone that can’t be used** because Apple designed and built the device and controls the software, its management, the online App Store, and everything else.

Users are trading carrier control for Apple’s control, but for the vast majority of users, Apple’s interests are far more in line with the customer’s interests than was ever the case with carriers. That’s why most of use find so much value in the iOS walled garden.

Still, some users want to jailbreak their iPhones for any number of reasons (from personal control to unlocking the device for another network). They can buy apps at places like Cydia, which are largely aimed at knowledgable users who have jailbroken their iOS device.

If you’re shopping at Cydia, you already have a jailbroken device, and are fairly likely know what you’ve gotten yourself into. There’s certainly much more of a caveat emptor feel to such online stores than at Apple’s App Store.

Amawhy?

This just isn’t the case if you’re shopping at Amazon’s Appstore for Android. I think it reasonable to say that most people shopping at a major retailer like Amazon will have an expectation that what they buy will work.

Despite the CYA clause Amazon is going to have some customers that don’t understand the rooting issue, and that will lead to some unhappy customers. Worse, it will also lead to some users rooting their devices that simply shouldn’t be doing so, and that will lead to compromised phones — it’s only a matter of time.

Call me a Nervous Nelly (I’ve been called far worse), but I don’t understand why Amazon would put themselves in this position.

* Really, it caught Dave Hamilton’s attention, but I’m happy to claim it for my own.

** Some countries have services like GPS or WiFi on the iPhone (or on any other device, including Android) disabled due to restrictions put in place by those governments.

Comments

ks2problema

My problem with the Amazon app store is not that it potentially gives me “too much choice” but rather that it tries to lock the consumer IN to the Amazon app store by placing restrictions on how apps sold through it may link to other sales options.

One point—the Android system allows item-by-item control of what an app has permission to access. Getting an app through Google’s store offers some assurance that the user will be informed of those permissions.

Pat

The fact that there is an option to purchase apps from another source without rooting/jailbreaking your phone is one the biggest reasons I would choose an Android phone over and iphone any day.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

The AT&T restriction is about their subsidized Android phones not allowing installations of software from sources other than the Marketplace. This would include, for example, many Gameloft games. If you have our own GSM phone with an AT&T SIM card, such as a Nexus One, the restriction is not there.

On rooting… You can root a Google experience phone without having to “jailbreak” it. See the video here. The phone even warns you that “rooting” will void your warranty. Rooting is not for everyone, but even Google has encouraged its handset maker partners to not make their phones unrootable. You most certainly will not need a DMCA ruling from the Copyright Office to have a wide supply of Android handsets that can be hacked, easily or legally.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

One point?the Android system allows item-by-item control of what an app has permission to access. Getting an app through Google?s store offers some assurance that the user will be informed of those permissions.

Actually, any third party sourced app that you install on an Android device displays permissions needed and has the user confirm those permissions before the software is installed on device.

Bryan Chaffin

Hey Brad, as I imagine you already know, I’m not against rooting per se on any platform. If one is willing to accept the risks, more power to the rooter.

It’s the wisdom of a mainstream store offering apps that require rooting that I’m questioning, especially when that same store pretends not to be encouraging people to root their device.

Bryan Chaffin

My problem with the Amazon app store is not that it potentially gives me ?too much choice?

Hey ks2, just to be clear, I am not calling choice a bad thing. Indeed, I love choice. My personal choice is Apple’s walled garden where my experience has been outstanding.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable for other folks to find more value in the Android platform.  There’s room for both (and more) approaches in the marketplace.

I just wanted to make sure that was understood.  smile

You other points about permissions and locks by Amazon are interesting. If I was an Android user, I’d be much more likely to stick to Google’s Marketplace for those and other reasons.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Bryan, I know you’re not opposed to rooting. My point is simply that on Google experience phones and some other handsets, rooting is not discouraged and does not rely on a security vulnerability. Google has actively lobbied its handset makers to not use things like bootloaders that load only signed ROMs, etc. Motorola seems to be coming around on that.

Contrast to jailbreaking an iOS device, which always relies on an unpatched security vulnerability, and which Apple fought against a DMCA exemption permitting. Amazon having apps that require a rooted phone is different from what Cydia is offering, because for a good chunk of the market, it’s totally legit. Might it cause problems for regular users? I doubt it. Do commercial apps that need root permission on the Mac or admin privileges on Windows cause widespread havoc? For the most part, no. Your phone isn’t terribly different.

Jgame

Its not android that made it hard for AT&T customers to be able to download from amazon but rather AT&T itself. Their customers are only able able to get apps form the App market. Something that has pissed a lot of customers off. The google market also has some apps that require Root permission. Its part of the choice of having an android. If you are capable of rooting your phone and you want that app then you can do it. If do not root your phone then its for the best you don’t get that app.

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