People Who Hate Walled Gardens Aren’t Going to Like Where Google’s Taking the Play Store

People Who Hate Walled Gardens Aren’t Going to Like Where Google’s Taking the Play Store
The new Android App Bundles will have a .aab file extension. (Image: Google)

Google will start imposing a change that would clamp down on the Android apps distributed through the Play Store. This week, the company announced that beginning in August, developers will have to publish apps as a proprietary Android App Bundle rather than the standard APK publishing format.

The requirement only applies to new apps, however. Existing apps are currently exempt, as well as private apps published to “managed Google Play users,” wrote Google in its blog. Developers have about a month to reconfigure their apps to the Android App Package, or .aab file extension.

Google originally introduced the Android App Package in Android 9 to help alleviate the bloat associated with app distribution. There are so many different hardware and language combinations within the device ecosystem that shipping code to accommodate it can lead to hefty apps. A high-end flagship device doesn’t usually have an issue parsing through all that. But low-budget and mid-range devices struggle to sort through large amounts of data due to their limited processing power and they have limited storage space.

The Android App bundle essentially splits the APKs from an archived file that contains it all into a mass of “Split APKs” installed individually by the Google Play Store, depending on the corresponding device. Ars Technica has a nice breakdown of how Split APKs work with different configurations:

As the name suggests, these “Split APKs” aren’t entire apps. They’re parts of an app, each targeting a specific area of change, that combine to form the final app. With App Bundles, if you have a high-resolution, ARMv8 device with a locale set to English with App Bundles, the Play Store will spit out a set of Split APKs that supports only that device type. If your friend has a low-resolution ARM v7 phone set for English and Hindi, they’ll get another set of APK that supports exactly that. Google Play can generate bespoke APKs for every user, giving them only the code they need and nothing more.

The result of Split APKs is apps that are, on average, 15 per cent smaller than the standard app package. Developers can even modularize different features in their apps, so they’re installed only when applicable and available to use.

There is a caveat, as there always is when a technology company starts to clamp down on how it distributes software. Since this is Google’s way of vetting apps before installation, it has to go through the Play Store to be unbundled. App bundles are based on an open-source format, but they rely on cloud power to manage all the app signing requirements needed to verify on the back-end. Small-time app stores don’t have that kind of money or firepower, so this makes Google’s offerings the status quo.

To put it simply, Android App Bundles will give Google more power over the apps it hosts in the Play Store. That’s fine for your everyday, run-of-the-mill Android user, who can rest easy knowing their apps are lighter and externally verified through Google. But for folks with a knack for sideloading and going against the grain, so to speak, it’s likely to get annoying, especially if you’re using a third party that doesn’t have the necessary signing keys.

It’s also a wonder how this will work within platforms like Windows 11, which will distribute Android apps through Amazon’s store and allow sideloading of APKs. If developers release only .aab files moving forward, then the APKs published may only contain parts of the app needed to run it. Not to mention, Amazon doesn’t support that file type, so will those apps even show up in the Microsoft Store?

I imagine it might be something like what I encountered when installing app bundles on the Huawei MatePad Pro 12.6, with the help of an app like APKMirror. The tablet uses Android apps, but it runs Huawei’s version of the operating system and doesn’t have any Google Play Services access. I was able to sideload APK files successfully. But anything packaged as an app bundle would return an error message. I’m still figuring out how to get around that.

When this new requirement goes live, the mass of app bundles will help ensure a safer and better functioning Android device for those who use their smartphones and tablets as Google intended. It would also help save Google some bandwidth since it wouldn’t constantly be pulling down heavy amounts of data any time a user installs a new app. But it’s a wonder how it will affect the rest of the ecosystem, which has long prided itself on its openness to all.