Beware of knockoffs in app stores

Last week, Microsoft finally took some aggressive action to address a problem that has been spoiling the Windows Store experience for many users: Useless, low quality, and junk apps that have been polluting searches within the store.

Here's the problem: For many common searches, multiple seemingly duplicate results would appear. Apps would have similar names, and often similar or even identical icons. It was hard to tell which app was the "official" version, and which were knock-offs. It was possible to accidentally buy a similar app when the official version was readily available -- for free.

The situation has been addressed before. Websites like Tech Crunch and PC World have written about it as long ago as January 2013, in fact, but it was put in the spotlight once again last week when How-To Geek showed just how bad the problem had gotten. A search for "VLC," for example -- a popular media player -- turned up a huge number of seemingly indistinguishable apps, all of them using the official VLC logo and many of them carrying a price tag. The real VLC app also lives in the store, available for free.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. Many apps in the Windows Store were low quality or didn't work at all. Some did little more than provide assistance downloading the real app -- for a price -- or offer tips or help on said apps, or presented offers after installation, serving as little more than an ad platform that users sometimes paid money to unwittingly install.

A huge number of popular apps, utilities, and games all suffered from the same problem. How-To Geek for example, found fake paid versions of dozens of commonly searched apps in the Windows Store for programs as diverse as Adobe Flash, Firefox, Candy Crush, and Picasa.

To be clear, this isn't a problem that's entirely unique to the store in Windows 8. All app stores have the potential to suffer this problem to some degree. But Microsoft seems to have a more pronounced problem. In part, it's just more noticeable, as the store's relatively small library (around 100,000 apps) means that a lot of junk is far more noticeable than in stores that have a million apps or more. And Microsoft has resisted curating the Windows Store in the same way that Apple does, which prevents this kind of widespread abuse from appearing in the iTunes Store.

All that changed last week, though, when Microsoft finally buckled down and addressed the "crapware" problem infecting its store. In a blog post last Wednesday, Microsoft laid out a plan to revitalize its store by enforcing new policies about app names and iconography, designed to make it easier for users to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. And speaking of chaff, Microsoft also announced stricter controls, and vowed to remove apps from the store that violate their guidelines. Indeed, a search of the store for popular apps that previously turned up a lot of junk results now look much cleaner.

The net result is that Microsoft might finally be serious about curating a high quality app store for Windows 8, and that's good. Nonetheless, shop smart. Before you download an app from the Windows Store -- or any app store, for that matter -- look at the developer to make sure you know who you are downloading from. And be wary of paying for most apps; Facebook, for example, should always be a free app. If there's a price tag, you might be about to download a knock-off.

Photo courtesy Microsoft