The open nature of Android offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to how and where we get the software we run on our phones, but there’s also little denying that the Play Store is going to be where the vast majority of us turn, the vast majority of the time — and for developers, getting their apps on the Play Store means playing by Google’s rules. Unfortunately, those rules are often inconsistently applied, or in such an opaque manner that devs are left feeling frustrated and hopeless.
Over the past couple of months, Android Police has covered the cases of two icon pack artists — Grabster Studios and PashaPuma Design — who have had their wares taken down from the Play Store for supposedly violating its Repetitive Content policy. The packs have since gone back up, but given that we’ve continued to hear about similar infractions in that community, we wanted to ask the major stakeholders in this particular corner of the Android-customization world what it would take to make things right. In the course of talking to artists, the app makers they rely on, and the developers behind launchers, we learned that Google needs to really rethink its approach if it’s going to meaningfully fix this mess.
The premise: Problem in the policy
All this heartache stems from Google Play’s Repetitive Content policy. While on its face a well-meaning effort to reduce spammy apps and keep quality up, there’s a core problem with compliance when creators find themselves forced to use apps to distribute content:
If these apps are each small in content volume, developers should consider creating a single app that aggregates all the content.
If you’ve browsed on the Play Store, you’ll immediately know this guidance isn’t universally followed: many artists like JustNewDesigns will have multiple designs in their portfolio and each of those designs will come in multiple colorways or shapeways — whether they’re changing out an accent in a line design or are implementing some sort of adaptive element.
Not only are there so many apps, but they also look so much alike — artists, many of whom might not consider coding their strong suit, tend to use open-source templates to create the actual app. You’ll likely see them credited to Sarsa Murmu, who runs a GitHub project called CandyBar, or Jahir Fiquitiva, the maintainer of the Blueprint repository. These resources take care of the “packaging” for the assets. They include integration compatibility with various popular launchers, a license scheme to prevent those who sideloaded the app for free from having the icons applied, and all sorts of other functionality. In addition to the icon assets, the apps may also house wallpapers and links to other apps.
The artists: Creators fending for themselves
Suspensions cost app publishers precious revenue — many artists say they rely on their icon design work as part of their living. Appeals take energy and time to go through and are not guaranteed to overturn violation judgments. Worse yet, if those suspensions rack up, their Play Console accounts can be terminated.
That’s what happened to an Italian designer who works under the name Hexoline Customization. Over the course of the last 17 days in March, the Play Store suspended 20 of their icon packs before banning their account. The 29-year-old entrepreneur says they are frustrated and heartbroken about the decision, which has been upheld after an appeal.
In trying to curry public favor on Reddit, Hexoline has been panned by critics who say a lot of their designs are nothing more than official logo assets copied and pasted onto simple shapes in a variety of colors. That is, largely unoriginal work that should be taken off the marketplace.
Meanwhile, Hexoline points to copycat icon packs featuring designs lifted from their original artists that remain available on the Play Store — one example alleged is DSP Lab copying the work of JustNewDesigns to sell its own packs in 2021. In complaining about this to the Play Store review team, Hexoline was told that the perceived compliance or non-compliance of other apps did not relate to their own compliance issues.
This episode presents two issues: the Play Store failing to prevent the sale of plagiarized products, as well as the fact that there is some level of user demand for simpler customizations that aren’t otherwise being offered. To a fair number of honest-to-goodness artists, there isn’t much justice to be found in the structures Google provides.
Artists face limits to how their creative vision gets executed because of the way Android delegates responsibilities between asset makers and launchers. The Adaptive Icons API, for example, lets app publishers provide an icon that can respond to dynamic theming, but the overarching API regime puts all the legwork of applying a user-defined aesthetic on the launcher. The current architecture precludes certain opportunities from an asset standpoint, like designs with a mixture of fixed and dynamic coloring elements, or allowing different adaptive icon designs to load in for different contexts, such as time of day. As such, artists aren’t inclined to switch away from selling packs individually in the first place if their work isn’t able to advantage of features they’re waiting for.
“I can read and edit code just fine as long as it’s laid out for me,” Grabster says. “But if I was to sit down and create my own app, I won’t be able to do so. Coding is not my specialty and I am simply not interested in it.”
The developers: Stuck between two hard places
In floating the idea of moving away from “one pack, one app” distribution to a model that splits the artistic content from the software, the consensus from repo maintainers and launcher developers is that it would be impossible to implement through the existing, widely-supported API.
“The app just packs the icons and a file that maps the icons to their corresponding app,” Sarsa Murmu tells Android Police. “Launchers read these files and do the rest by themselves. The launchers have to implement a new method for loading icons dynamically to support many-in-one icon packs.”
Another veteran Android app developer notes that this schema hasn’t really changed from the days of the original ADW launcher some 12-odd years ago.
While both sides are open to collaborating on a new API or, perhaps, building on top of the existing one, it would take plenty of time, work, and money — completely unbudgeted for at this point — to make that happen. This isn’t even to mention the effort required to make sure as many launcher developers support the new API while, crucially, maintaining backwards compatibility for the existing one.
For the part of Blueprint creator Jahir Fiquitiva, he would need a hard incentive to be involved in creating a new API. He’s juggling a job with newer side projects to support himself financially and notes that he hasn’t received much in contributions from the artists who have been using his resources and profiting from them.
“I initially made [Blueprint] as a side project and it’s been open-source always (if I recall correctly),” Fiquitiva tells us, “but eventually open-source projects also require a lot of time and effort and one needs some stable income for our very own sustainability and to be able to cover life costs and stuff.”
Barring any radical changes, the developer suggests that Google could apply a label to apps that are highly similar to one another, but continue to allow them to be sold on the Play Store.
Robert Wainwright, who works on Nova Launcher at parent company Branch, laments the fact that Google isn’t easily engaged on the issue. He notes that the current icon pack schema predates many rules that the Play Store has built over time — the Repetitive Content policy came about in 2018. More importantly, the opaque enforcement of these rules lacks any sort of consideration towards fair business models that truly benefit from many-app distribution.
“It serves to harm both developers and consumers and benefits essentially nobody,” Wainwright said, “Could the icon pack format change? Sure. Should it be forced to? Probably not.”
Google’s role: What it is and what it should be
Artists would have much to gain from a new or revised API. Adding and adapting new icon designs to existing products would be much easier. New designs may be able to take advantage of changes to the Adaptive Icons API as Google lays them out. There would be unease as to how the business model could shift — should publishers charge by the app, through in-app purchases, or both? But as it stands, the biggest benefit with such a change is that it would presumably get Play’s “RoboCops” off their back. Of course, we can’t be sure of that with how Google’s enforcement apparatus operates, but the notion of unfairness lends credibility to those supporting the status quo unless the company is willing to come to the bargaining table.
At the end of the day, Google is certainly within its right to build regulations around apps to respond to emergent scammers and distressing content. Automation is meant to render manageable the sheer volume of content the Play platform sees published on a daily basis. But so long as icon artists sit under threat from a rulebook that can be arbitrarily thrown at them at any time, if nothing changes, we may be on a road leading to the degradation of a core Android tenet that even the most casual tech consumer associates with the platform — user customizability.
We’ve made multiple attempts reaching out to Google for comment on this matter. Our invitation remains open and standing.