Where Is the Online Android Market Google Promised?

A sneak peek at the online Android Market

With the release of Chrome OS Web Store this week, it got me thinking: Where is that online browser-based Android Market Google (s goog) promised?

You might recall that almost seven months ago, Google VP Vic Gundotra took the stage at Google I/O and gave attendees a “sneak peek” of Android Market accessible through a browser. No release date was given, but the images shown were promising, revealing an iTunes-like (s aapl) polished marketplace, with various discovery tools and lists. In fact, it looked like what you’re seeing in the Chrome Web Store.

Now, it’s great to see Google is serious about changing the way web apps are sold online through the Chrome Web Store. But what about the more than 100,000 Android apps sitting in the two-year-old Android Market, still only available through a handset? That Chrome Web Store arrived before an online version of Android Market makes me wonder how much emphasis Google is putting on upgrades to its mobile app market, still an acknowledged sore spot among developers.

Android Market just isn’t a great experience right now compared to the App Store, something Rovio CEO Peter Vesterbacka reiterated Friday. The existing online site is just a list of free, paid and featured apps and offers no way to search or purchase apps. On the handset, Google doesn’t offer the same amount of discoverability options that Apple does with its App Store, which is available on handsets and through its iTunes application. On Android handsets, users get featured and recently uploaded apps, but they don’t get the fuller options for What’s Hot or Genius selections on iOS devices. On iTunes, the App Store also offers Staff Picks, app gifting or sending e-mail recommendations.

Google should definitely improve on Android Market on its handsets but it should also be working hard to get a browser version as well. Currently, consumers have a hard time finding stuff, and developers have fewer ways to stand out. Online stores and resources such as AppBrain and GetJar, which can both deliver apps over the air to Android devices, have turned into popular destinations for app shoppers. in part because consumers don’t get what they need from Google. A solid online store would help users better explore the Android Market catalog and encourage them to open up their wallets, something they do far less than their iOS counterparts. When I asked Google formally about updates to Android Market this week, a spokesman said the company has nothing to report.

The thing is, Google, which is all about organizing information, is totally capable of doing this. The Chrome Web Store is a solid marketplace with hundreds of apps available. The glimpse Google showed at Google I/O of Android Market online was even more impressive, including not only categories for featured apps, personalized app recommendations, Android Team Favorites and Fast Risers, but also a way to select an app online and have it delivered over the air to a user’s phone with no syncing involved. That would actually one-up the App Store, which could also use a browser-based storefront.

Google VP Andy Rubin, the “godfather of Android” seems to understand the need for changes. He said at the AllThingsD mobile conference earlier this week that a search company like Google should be able to make discoverability easy. “As a search company, if we can’t help you discover apps, I think we have a problem. We should be very easily able to organize a few hundred thousand apps,” he said, according to AllThingsD. So why hasn’t that happened in a more satisfying way?

Google, for its part, has steadily been making improvements to Android Market. It has added a feature for related apps, so users can see similar apps to ones they’ve selected. There’s also better error reporting and other improvements for developers and content ratings for users. Tim Bray, Google’s developer advocate, promised “lots more goodness” coming so it’s quite possible we’ll see the promised online store any day now.

But it’s been way too long for this, and the launch of the Chrome Web Store only highlights that. Android, with its soaring sales — 300,000 daily activations — is now a major mobile player now, and heavyweights like VC Fred Wilson are recommending developers start with Android now before iOS. While developers are getting on board, many are slow to, and with good reason, said blogger John Gruber. But if Google starts applying more focus to Android Market — and a big online presence would be a great sign of it — it would show that it’s prepared to help the Android ecosystem really benefit from the platform’s growth and remove any barriers keeping Android from fully reaching its potential.

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