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Piracy and patents scaring away mobile app developers – That’s a serious problem!

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Piracy and patents are the evil twins which are making the life of mobile app developers difficult. Mobile application developers rely on the API’s of the mobile OS’s like Android and Apple to develop an app. Once the app is developed the developers rely on the app stores for revenues and recognition. In-application advertising is yet another stream app developers rely on.  All of these things and many developer’s dream is in jeopardy thanks to patents and piracy.

Piracy exists in the mobile app world through jail breaking if it is for iPhone and more directly if it’s an Android powered phone. That’s the reason many app developers go free on their app and try to get their money through in-app advertising.

Few apps which try to get it via app sales are having it hard to survive. One such app is FingerKicks, a football game for iOS. The game retails for $0.99. After game is launched, FingerKicks creator GAMEized was happy to see the Game Center counter kicking. There were more than 16,000 players playing the game, of which only 1163 have actually bought the game as per TechCrunch. A whopping 15,950 games are pirated copies.

Every time Apple releases a software upgrade, a jailbreak comes almost within 12 hours. Apple has just released its 4.3.4 version and there is already a jailbreak available. Though jailbreaking might sound cool and there are absolutely valid reasons for it, app developers are finding it hard to survive let alone monetize.

If piracy continues, there might not be as many awesome apps but just the fart apps. Something’s gotta give and right now it looks like it’s app developers turn.

Patent isn’t as straight forward as piracy is. There are no thugs and rowdy’s yanking the software for free. Patent is a legalized form of depriving the app developers of either their money or piece of mind. Sometimes it is both. Some say patents are a way of protecting intellectual property (IP) and some say it is a troll.

Off late the software patents are turning out to be more troll and less IP. Till now no one has touched the app developers in this patent game. Lodsys became the first company to do so. It has sued 5 app developers for using in-app payments. This is done by using a patent which predates Internet. Here’s what the patent is all about :

The idea was that if you’re sitting and holding in your hand a product and you use it, why shouldn’t it be aware of your behaviour, digitally, and conduct your needs to the vendor, who could interact with you.”

I am not much of a patent guy but that to me looks like an ‘idea’. For argument sake, let’s say it is a patent. Why would an app developer who is using a software kit provided by Apple be sued? Shouldn’t Lodsys be suing Apple?

Wouldn’t that be much more fun for Lodsys? Lodsys also says that many companies have licensed its patent. Does that mean Apple has licensed it already? If it did, then isn’t Lodsys getting its fair share?

Many app developers are finding it better to remove their apps out of US app stores altogether instead of dealing with Lodsys and ilk. Simon Maddox, a UK developer has removed all his apps from both iOS store and Android market. Few other developers have expressed similar sentiments. Simon Maddox has left this message to Lodsys on Twitter :

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Yeah! Screw you, Lodsys.

That brings us to another company which is scaring app developers : Kootol. This funny sounding company is from India and is trying to sue a record 32 companies with many more coming from the ‘assembly line’. Kootol is planning to sue almost all the top technology companies in the northern hemisphere, including the most valuable technology company, Apple. Think of a technology company and I’m sure we can find a place for it in Kootol’s patent troll.

Here’s the complete (so far) list of companies Kootol is suing :

“Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Apple, Bharti Airtel Ltd., Webaroo Technology (India) Pvt. Ltd., Amazon, AOL, Nokia, Bebo Inc., ExactTarget Inc., Ford Motor, Foursquare Inc., IBM, Linkedin, MySpace, NING Inc., Research In Motion Inc., Quora Inc., Salesforce.com Inc., Seesmic Inc., Siemens Enterprise Communications Inc., Sina.com Technology Co. Ltd., StatusNet Inc., PopBox Inc., Twitpic Inc., Peek Inc., The Iconfactory Inc., Ubermedia Inc., Yammer Inc., Facebook and Twitter.”

Kootol’s founders must be great fans of the world map. US, Canada, India, China and Europe – All are present. I’m sure they will find out a way to accommodate an African country or the newest country, South Sudan on their list.

The big companies can defend themselves. Not much of a problem there. It’s the companies which rely on the API’s of a bigger company which have a problem. Ubermedia, Twitpic, Seesmic and The Iconfactory are the app developers which have developed their apps based on Twitter’s API. Iconfactory is unfortunately on the hit list of both Kootol and Lodsys. Which only means one thing. We might not see terrific apps like Twitterfic. And that’s a real shame.

Angry Birds has a rosy story to tell you. Few app developers are painting a different picture. A picture if not corrected would destroy the eco systems Apple and Google built it so well.

Here’s a suggestion to the folks who award patents : Bring out a rule that says, if you don’t use the patent in a year or two then it will no longer be valid. See in India, government has a rule for the usage of telecom spectrum. If a company is found sitting on the spectrum without actually using it, government takes it away. Something on those lines should be worked out for patents too.

You are smart guys, I will leave the details to you.

Here’s a suggestion for all the patent trolls : Leave the app developers alone. Will ya? Or you like the ‘screw you’ better?

I wish we had an app for these patent trolls. There goes one more patent.

[This post has been reproduced from our sister blog – The Gagdet Fan – for benefit of trak.in readers]

  1. Madhav Shivpuri says

    Good post Sreeram. What’s the solution?

    Can Fourquare have an IP on check-in’s or badges? Should every developer create a company and have huge funding and army of lawyers to fight the baddies or not develop apps for fear of being hijacked or sued?

    I read somewhere that one app developer took a creative route to this (don’t remember which and where I read this). For the lite version of an app there are no ads. If the app is purchased then no ads. If the app is hacked & installed on an jail broken phone (without paying developer) they throw immense # of ads to annoy the user. Howzaat???? ;-)

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