Facebook bypassing the Play Store shows how useful "walled gardens" really are

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 15, 2013

From The News Desk

Startups resist regulation. A "fuck da police" attitude runs deep through the ecosystem, whether it's expressed by a car service that doesn't work well with regulators -- until it needs them, anyway -- or an app developer sick of waiting for his app to be approved. It also pervades users, who bridle at overt control, fearing the "walled garden" created by a carefully-managed platform and extolling the virtues of "competition!" and "freedom!" in every blog post they encounter. 

That's why developers and users alike are fond of Web-based operating systems, which let developers reach their audience without middle-men. Forget about dealing with Apple's stringent App Store policies, or Google's attempts to curate the Android experience. Who needs rule-making bodies restricting our software-related liberties?

Well, according to the response to Facebook prompting Android users to update the Facebook app outside of Google's Play Store, the answer is "We do!" Liliputing was the first to report on the practice, and Facebook has updated its Help Center to acknowledge that it has changed the way Android users update their applications.

When asked for comment, Facebook confirmed that it was testing an update feature "for a limited number of people using Facebook for Android" that "allows them to experience new features before they are released to the full Android user base (via updates in the Google Play Store)."  It assures us that it has been testing the updates "only for users who have enabled a setting on their phones that allows them to install apps outside of the Google Play store," and these updates won't eat up minutes on their call plans because ether occur on Wi-Fi only.

"Facebook has a culture of moving fast, radially iterating and undertaking ongoing testing to keep improving our products for all our users," the spokesperson said. "On desktop, Facebook has relied on a similar mechanism for years, where by having the ability to update the site daily and roll-out new products and features to small sets of users first, we can receive feedback before updating the experience for all of our users."

And herein lies the problem: Even as Facebook borrows from and focuses more attention on mobile, the company thought that an approach that works on the Web would work on the smartphone.

Mobile users are taught from the moment they turn their phone on that apps come from one place, whether that place is the App Store, Play Store, the Windows Marketplace, or any other centralized software distributor. Anything that breaks from that, as happened today, is met with suspicion and derision.

Aaron Smith, the user who asked about the new update method via Facebook's Community Forum, writes that he was "especially concerned" by the prompt to install the updated Facebook app via an external source (Android-speak for "Not from the Play Store"), given recent cyberattacks against the social network. Others weighed in, saying the update "feels like" spam, malware, and other non-legitimate software.

Imagine what might happen if Rolex began selling its watches on the streets of New York instead of its swanky stores. There are already dozens of "vendors" making Rolex promises they can't keep, so such a move would likely be met with a bemusement. Or, worse, someone might complain to the cops and get legitimate sellers hauled off to jail.

Part of the negative reaction can blamed on Facebook's usual lack of communication. The social network has a history of rolling out new features, attracting users' ire, then profusely apologizing before doing the same thing a few months later. It's as if Mark Zuckerberg lives by the credo, "It's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission."

But this is different. This isn't about moving a button a few pixels to the left, resizing a couple images, or changing the way users interact with Facebook itself. It's about a large company bypassing a system users have grown to trust. 

I'd wager that much of the hate against controlled software ecosystems stems from confirmation bias. "Well, my app isn't doing anything nefarious, so regulating all apps must be bad!" or "I haven't had my data stolen and I install apps from outside the Play Store!" lead to blanket statements of what does and doesn't work with software distribution that might not apply to everyone else.

Those arguments are also suspiciously similar to those in favor of non-software startups bypassing legal bodies, or people who leave their house doors unlocked and check into Foursquare in their quest to become the "mayor" of Duane Reade, yet are lucky enough to have never been robbed.

Proponents of Web-based operating systems like to tout decentralization of software as something that will be embraced overnight. Mozilla certainly seems to think so, given its enthusiasm about Firefox OS' openness and the opportunity for multiple "app stores" to coexist on its devices. Developers would likely kill to be able to instantly update their apps on Android and iOS.

The problem, as Facebook has illustrated, is that this is wildly different from what users expect on mobile platforms. They want to get their software from one place, expect it to act a certain way, and rely on platform makers to let them know what is or isn't safe to install. Once that process is bypassed mobile suddenly becomes a darker, scarier place.

Then they won't be chanting "Fuck da police." They'll be dialing 911.

[Image by Hallie Bateman]