Can Amazon.com beat Android Market at its own game?

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Jason Ankeny

Amazon.com took the wraps off the worst-kept secret in mobile last week, formally announcing the launch of its Appstore Developer Portal and in turn confirming its much-rumored plans to roll out an Android application storefront later in 2011. The self-service Amazon Appstore Developer Portal tool enables software programmers to join the online retail giant's fledgling Appstore Developer Program and submit apps for sale via the Amazon Appstore for Android--the company will test all apps before introducing them in the store, guaranteeing a positive user experience and protecting consumers from malware and other potentially harmful situations. Applications available in the Amazon Appstore for Android will operate on smartphones and tablets running Android 1.6 and above; premium downloads will bill to the customer's existing Amazon account, with developers earning the now-standard 70 percent cut of all revenues. And although Amazon plans to eventually charge a $99 annual fee to participate in the Appstore Developer Program, admission will be free during the initiative's first year.

Looking across the mobile software landscape, it may seem the industry needs another app store like it needs a hole in the head. But as developers who've struggled with the myriad discovery and merchandising challenges posed by Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android Market and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store can attest, there remains significant room for improvement. That's the niche that Amazon is looking to fill. "For developers, the chance for exposure is the most important benefit (of Amazon Appstore for Android)," says Amazon.com Mobile Services category leader Aaron Rubenson in an interview with FierceDeveloper. "Developers will get their apps in front of tens of millions of customers worldwide, backed by our proven marketing and merchandising expertise."

If you've ever browsed Amazon.com for books, music or movies--and given that the site welcomes more than 65 million visitors per month, it's safe to assume most consumers have shopped there--then you know that product recommendations are one of the platform's fundamental strengths. Amazon will extend its recommendation expertise to the Appstore for Android, Rubenson says. "Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find products relevant to them," he explains. "We'll be using knowledge we have from past purchases and other algorithms to put recommended apps in front of customers."

But Amazon Appstore for Android won't begin and end with recommendations based on previous application purchases... which is where things start to get really interesting. The store will instead suggest apps according to each customer's complete Amazon shopping history--everything from socks to sunglasses to snow shovels. "For example, if you recently bought a set of cooking knives, we might recommend a cooking app," says Ameesh Paleja, general manager for Amazon's Engineering Division of Mobile Services. "That's one of the key areas where we'll set ourselves apart."

Amazon Appstore for Android won't set itself apart by mandating DRM restrictions across apps sold via the storefront--those rumors are untrue, Rubenson says. Developer partners can instead choose on an app-by-app basis whether to implement rights management mechanisms or make their software available without constraints. Amazon adds it expects to push most apps through testing within a week, and promises to maintain a light touch over the approval process. "We're not going to be prescriptive about what constitutes app design, and we'll be very explicit about any problems we encounter and how developers can solve those issues," Rubenson says. "We want to have as broad a selection as possible. We will have our content guidelines posted in the developer portal."

On paper, it appears Amazon is building a better mousetrap. Even so, the fact remains that Amazon Appstore for Android faces formidable competition from Android Market as well as rivals like GetJar and Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) V Cast Apps. Amazon knows it must be aggressive: "We're making it as easy as possible to get and install a mobile version of the store on the device," Rubenson says. "We're also talking to a number of different folks in the ecosystem to make it easier to end up with a version that's preloaded on the device."

Despite its late entry into the app store race, Amazon is resolute in its belief that it can still win out by delivering a superior experience--not just for consumers, but for developers as well. "The biggest complaint we've heard from developers [about other app stores] is that the review process is opaque," Paleja says. "Our goal is to treat them as first-class customers and to be transparent. Our store will be a friendly destination." -Jason