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Going Underground

26 Aug

Amazon have announced the launch of Underground – a (potentially) disruptive new model for mobile app distribution, designed to make premium app content free and therefore bring an end to paid-for apps and in-app purchasing. How does it work, why have they done this, and what might the implications be for educational apps and ELT? Well, it breaks down like this:

Access to free, premium apps

Owners of Android devices can download the ‘Amazon Underground‘ shopping app directly from Amazon (it’s not on Google Play) and gain immediate access to free apps. Amazon have launched this in the US, the UK, France and Germany, but presumably access for more countries will be coming soon. Of course, this is early days so don’t expect to choose from the million-plus apps that you’re presented with on Google Play. This new model is dependent on content providers – app developers – buying into Amazon’s vision and it will therefore take time to build up content. However, Amazon have managed to launch with an impressive range of apps, so if you’re an Android user and a fan of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds (or if Office Suite Professional 8 is more your thing), it’s well worth taking a look.

Importantly, this is not Amazon Prime or a similar subscription service. It is completely free. You do have to register with Amazon, and therefore become a part of their eco-system (if you’re not already), but you didn’t seriously expect this offer to be completely catch-free, did you?

 If premium apps are free, how do developers make money?

Unlike Google Play and the Apple App Store, where developers make their money from download payments, in-app purchases and/or in-app advertising, with this new Amazon model the end user pays nothing, it is instead Amazon who pay the developers.

With a ‘usage per minute’ model, developers receive royalty payments from Amazon based on the number of minutes users have accessed their app(s) for. In theory, this will help to maintain quality, as developers will only be successful if their apps are good enough to continually engage users.

 So isn’t this just another way for developers to monetize their ‘free’ apps?

No. Amazon have imposed some strict (and some slightly vaguer) rules about the kinds of apps that can be distributed through this model, and one of those rules is that the app must be available for sale elsewhere (essentially, Google Play or the Apple App Store), so this rules out the multitude of low quality, free apps currently bulking out the app stores.

It’s also worth noting that any apps with in-app purchasing have to be re-built to strip out this functionality, and whilst in-app advertising is permissible, in-app advertising that rewards users with in-app purchase items is not.

What’s in it for Amazon?

More customers registered with Amazon. And data. Lots and lots of data.

Are Google and Apple quaking in their boots?

Unlikely. At least, not yet. If this new model takes off, and users start to drift way from Google Play, or switch from iPhones to the likes of Samsung and Sony, then Google and Apple will have to react, but there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and many of the question marks will be around content. There’s little point in having a thousand free apps if the one app that every teenager wants is only available for iOS or on Google Play. Presumably though, there are mums and dads funding their teenagers’ app purchases who will be wishing Amazon every success with this new venture. The importance of getting the right content mustn’t be underestimated, and it’s an area where Amazon, and others, have struggled with digital products such as eReaders, when ‘paucity of content’ in some markets dramatically inhibits sales.

Any benefits for education and English language teaching?

Amazon’s focus appears to be on games though clearly, free educational apps would appeal to many schools (and parents), but if you don’t pay for your content, you are at the mercy of developers who can, at any point, opt out and withdraw their app(s). Not great if you’ve integrated something into your curriculum and it disappears part way through the academic year. For primary and secondary schools there’s the added complication (possibly an impassable barrier?) of Amazon registration. The model appears to be geared much more towards individuals, and simply not designed for the distribution and volume purchase needs of educational institutions. That said, if a sizeable opportunity arose, no doubt Amazon would find a way…

For ELT then, perhaps of more interest is the potential for adults studying by themselves or attending language classes and needing some supplementary support. There is of course no shortage of this kind of material freely available online and on the app stores, but why trawl through hours of dubious grammar explanations on YouTube if you can download – and access offline – quality content from reputable digital publishers? Naturally, this is dependent on said publishers seeing value in distributing their apps through this new Amazon model when they might be doing perfectly well with the more traditional sales channels. But is any developer really happy with losing a third of all their revenue to Google and Apple? And wouldn’t it be nice for your lovingly created app to be sitting with a relatively small selection of ‘premium’ content rather than frantically waving for attention as it drowns in a sea of cheap, poorly executed rubbish churned out from someone’s bedroom in South East Asia? (Rubbish apps from other parts of the world also available.)

OK, sounds interesting. And finally my Fire Phone purchase makes sense!

Umm, no. The Fire Phone is not supported, and neither are Generation 2 or earlier Fire tablets. Bad luck.

Check out the Twitter chatter on the Amazon-led hashtag: #actuallyfree

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