App Espionage: The Beginning (and The End?) - App Week


By Timothy Dillon

App espionage refers to the practices of competing app developers and programmers who copy Apps that are popular, and market them in a similar fashion to try to cut into the profits that might otherwise belong to the original App’s developer. Search for a “flashlight” app and you’ll discover a series of copycats of the original.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

No one denies the impact that mobile devices, like PDA’s, tablets, and smartphones, have made on the world today. Their presence represents an ever growing and a versatile way to approach the world in the information age. Though the expression, “Smartphone, dumb person,” comes to mind, it is not inherently true. What these devices have allowed us to do as consumers, and even as citizens, is connect us to a bevy of resources to facilitate our lives. Credit is due to the people who create these platforms and devices like Apple’s groundbreaking iPhone and iOS software, as well as to Apple competitors, Samsung and other Android-enabled devices. Without these companies, none of this would be possible.

The progress, though, lies with the programmers working on expanding the digital infrastructure of these devices. Apps have changed the name of the game, and on the other side of the feats they are managing to accomplish, there has been a series of shady business practices.

Worse than the copycatting, however, was when Apple filed litigation against app developer Molinker after they were discovered fabricating reviews in the app store. Molinker had no response, citing that they did “not know what’s wrong so far.” This lead to the removal of 1000 apps from the store.

In such a fast-paced market, app developers are forced to come up with new ways to get ahead and stay profitable. Unfortunately, many companies take the quick and easy path, inflating reviews and copying the work of others.

The past year has been particularly tumultuous for Bay Area developers. In August, Apple began messaging developers directly, informing them that their apps were to be removed due to a variety of reasons, most notably because many of them were too familiar to existing apps. Apple is particularly strict in how they operate the app store, and not without their own questionable business practices, like in February with the revival of removing apps that are similar to games created by Atari, a company with long-standing ties to Apple.

Recently, BTR sat down with Awesomium creator and entrepreneur, Adam Simmons, a software developer living in San Francisco and a Bay Area insider. Simmons is in a unique spot, since his software is not an app, but rather a Web UI made for bridging the gap between the front end and back end of an app. Confused? Let Adam simplify it for you:

“The big takeaway from that is that you use our tool to build the front end of your app with HTML 5,” Simmons tells BTR. “That means any graphic, picture, video, or data that can be found online can then be used to create the part of the app you see and use; a faster way of making the interface of apps for those who are not app developers.”

“It was me scratching my own itch. I was familiar with the gaps of technology we had and decided, ‘Why don’t we have this, it would be great if we did,’ and started hacking away at it in my free time, and before I knew it, it took off,” Simmons continues.

Currently his software is used by companies like Microsoft, Citrix, Flixster, and even Lego. Simmons has tapped into a serious demand for accessibility in creating apps, especially for mobile devices. In part, doing so was in response to him trying to think outside the app bubble.

“There was a sort of gold rush in the mobile App development space. So suddenly you had everybody and their Mom wanting to build an iPhone app. There was sort of a dearth of ideas. There weren’t that many unique or good ideas, everybody decided that I’m just going to copy the Top 10 right now and pivot, just change a little bit and [add a] little special something. So [now] you have 40 different apps that do the same thing — the same flashlight apps, the same alarm clock apps. I think that is especially true in this market,” Simmons tells BTR.

Awesomium, while not being an app, is just as susceptible to being used for such demeaning practices as copycatting. Since his software allows people to use anything in HTML 5, it also means that developers could use his program to directly copy and use copyrighted material. Simmons and Awesomium are safe from litigation though, since they do not host any copyrighted material on their servers. Once their software is licensed to a company, they take the heat for how they use it, and the heat is turning up. Fewer and fewer copycat apps are being made. There has been a shift, and Simmons is on the front lines of that shift.

Simmons lives in a relatively new sort of “co-working” space, where young developers and entrepreneurs live and work together to share ideas, progress, skills and even collaborate to come up with new projects.

“I joined a ‘co-working’ space because when you’re a small start-up, you need to be in the mix of things so you have this whole wealth of resources. It’s sort of like having that big family you can ask for legal advice, for design advice, you can share information, share resources and get a major handhold on the ecosystem that is San Francisco,” Simmons tells BTR.

There is a great light at the end of the tunnel to keep the app bubble from becoming too saturated to the point of ‘burst.’ Instead of developers looking to each other’s work to mimic or steal, stronger relationships are being built much closer to home. This new way of sharing information and developing digital start ups should help Apple’s and Android’s efforts to weed out copycat’s and app spy’s from the market since their collaboration will be about developing new ways to further the uses of mobile devices, instead of just repeating what has already been done.