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VCast Closing Reveals Hidden Danger of "App Stores"

Yahoo Contributor Network

If you bought a smartphone from Verizon Wireless in the last couple of years, you may have noticed that it came with not one, but two app markets: the Google Play store (formerly known as the Android Market), and VCast, or Verizon Apps. VCast debuted in 2010 as an alternative app market which supported Verizon carrier billing, back when Google Play did not, and sold apps on Blackberry smartphones as well.

Now Verizon is closing the doors on the Verizon Apps store, as it's just informed app developers. Verizon customers aren't scheduled to be notified until January of next year, but work is already in progress behind the scenes to remove Verizon Apps from millions of smartphones. Once it's removed, it will have unpleasant -- and completely avoidable -- consequences for some of Verizon's customers.

How app stores work

Before app stores existed, buying "computer software" online was very much a do-it-yourself experience.

First, you had to find the store, which was sometimes no easy feat. Then you had to download and install it yourself, often with no guarantee that it'd actually run on your hardware. Finally, whenever your app got an update you'd either have to go download and install it all over again, or else be interrupted by that specific app's updater (sort of like how Java and Flash do even today).

App stores changed all that

But they did so at a cost: Nearly all apps bought through Google Play and the iPhone's App Store are affected by DRM, or Digital Rights Management software. This ostensibly makes apps harder to pirate, by tying your apps to your app store account and keeping you from making copies of them. But it also means that at any time, the company which runs the app store can kill your apps that you already purchased.

This can be a good thing

When Google discovered the "mother of all Android malware" on Google Play, it was able to kill the infected apps even on people's devices, and clean things up very quickly. But on the other hand, this can also mean people losing their apps with no warning or explanation, like in Martin Bekkelund's report of a person who lost her entire Kindle account and everything on it.

What about in Verizon's case?

According to Verizon, "Apps that require a monthly license check will no longer work" after the Verizon Apps store is killed. It goes on to explain which apps this includes, and gives a list that encompasses pretty much every way to pay for an app. Anything on that list that you bought from Verizon Apps, simply won't work pretty soon. Even if some of yours still work, you won't be able to redownload them if you delete them, or put them on a new phone that you buy ... unless, of course, you're a hacker and know common techniques to defeat Verizon's DRM.

Some people, of course, have already faced this ... such as if they had to change their legal name and abandon an app store account linked to it, to escape being stalked or for other reasons. In that case, say goodbye to everything that you've purchased.

Does it have to be this way?

Popular game and app bundles, like MacHeist and the Humble Indie Bundle, sell apps which are DRM-free and can be copied to any device which can run them. There's even a Humble Android updater, to keep your smartphone games up to date. Meanwhile, Linux "package managers" worked like app stores years before Apple's, but were (and still are) often run by nonprofit organizations with democratically elected governing boards.

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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