Apple, Google get aggressive on app store cleanup

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Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Plant vs. Zombie. Angry Ninja Birds. Temple Jump. These are not typos--these are copycat App Store applications that shamelessly piggyback on legitimate mobile blockbusters like Plants vs. Zombies, Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Temple Run. All of these ripoffs are the work of developer Anton Sinelnikov, who built a business by duping unsuspecting consumers into downloading pale imitations of the apps they truly want. But that business is no more: Last week, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) brought the hammer down, deleting approximately 60 of Sinelnikov's most outrageous clones. As of Monday afternoon, Sinelnikov's App Store output is down to nine apps, including unheralded titles like Speed Racing, Colorful Cubes and Cool Cars Game.

Credit Apple for stepping up and taking care of the problem. "We're really happy with how quickly Apple responded to the situation and removed [Temple Jump]," Natalia Luckynova, co-founder of Temple Run developer Imangi, tells Gamasutra. "The app was clearly a scam that traded entirely on the popularity of Temple Run and was packaged to confuse users." Luckyanova adds that Sinelnikov's plot was successful: A number of consumers downloaded Temple Jump, mistaking it for authorized spinoff. "This was really upsetting to us and damaging to our brand, because we work really hard to put out very high quality polished games and win the love of our fans, and we don't want them to think that we would put out crap to steal a dollar from them," Luckyanova says.

What more can Apple do to police the App Store? Luckyanova cautions that more rigorous checks and balances could help improve piracy, but also could slow the App Store approval process--a trade-off she's unwilling to make. "I don't think there's a perfect solution, because you need human judgment involved in the system," Luckyanova says. "The platform holder can't realistically police copyright violations, or just misleading apps. As developers, we sign an agreement saying that we have obtained all the IP permissions necessary for our work, so that responsibility is on the developer. I guess I don't have a solution, because I wouldn't want reviews to be even more strictly policed. The good thing is that most stores have a way to appeal the process if something does slip through the cracks."

Intellectual property theft is one problem facing the mobile ecosystem--malware is another, especially in Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android Market, which is far less exacting about submission standards than the App Store. Last week, Google unveiled Bouncer, which automatically scans Android Market for potentially malicious software without disrupting the user experience or demanding developers to go through an app approval process. Bouncer scans new Android Market applications, apps already available for download and developer accounts for known malware, spyware and trojans, concurrently patrolling for behaviors that indicate an app might be misbehaving--the resulting data is then compared against previously analyzed apps to identify potential red flags. "We actually run every application on Google's cloud infrastructure and simulate how it will run on an Android device to look for hidden, malicious behavior," Android vice president of engineering Hiroshi Lockheimer writes on the Official Google Mobile Blog. "We also analyze new developer accounts to help prevent malicious and repeat-offending developers from coming back."

Although Google did not formally announce Bouncer until last week, the service has been up and running for some time now. While Juniper Networks reported late last year that Android Market malware samples increased 472 percent during the second half of 2011, Google denies the charges, and contends that thanks to Bouncer, the number of potentially malicious Market downloads decreased 40 percent compared to the previous six months. "While it's not possible to prevent bad people from building malware, the most important measurement is whether those bad applications are being installed from Android Market--and we know the rate is declining significantly," Lockheimer writes. It isn't possible to prevent bad developers from building knockoff apps, either, but with any luck, Anton Sinelnikov's ignominious fate will make them think twice. --Jason