Ina Fried

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Why It Took ATT So Long To Allow Side-Loading of Android Apps

AT&T is in the midst of reversing a policy that has long irked Android enthusiasts.

Until this month, the company generally prohibited users from getting their apps from anywhere other than the official Android Market. With the arrival of Amazon’s App Store in March, AT&T had said it was re-evaluating that policy, paving the way for users to access that store, as well as others, such as GetJar.

Earlier in May, AT&T started selling its first Android device capable of so-called side-loading of apps–the Samsung Infuse 4G. Now, the carrier is also rolling out updates to older devices.

“Over the next few weeks, we will also roll out this capability to existing devices in our base for which an upgrade is possible,” an AT&T representative said on Tuesday. “Users will not need to take any action as their phone will receive the update automatically.”

So why did it take this long?

In an interview last month, AT&T CTO John Donovan said that the challenge is that, although there was a vocal minority clamoring for such access, 99 percent of users are silent, but would prefer the company do everything it can to make sure their devices are safe and secure.

“We take that custodian role really seriously,” Donovan said during a chat with All Things D, following his appearance on stage at the VentureBeat Mobile Summit.

When it comes to Android, AT&T has been something of a slow starter in general. Alone with the iPhone for several years, the company had little incentive to move too quickly into the Android camp. These days, though, the company is looking to bolster its Android bona fides. The company has promised at least a dozen new devices this year and has already launched several new ones, most notably Motorola’s Atrix 4G.

Donovan insists it was not being sluggish in delaying the side-loading of apps. Rather, he said, the company was making a choice to prioritize safety. And if people want to know who to blame, Donovan said he takes full responsibility for the decision.

“The buck stops here,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we had the ability to find nefarious apps and to take them down.”

AT&T won’t be slow to innovate on all fronts, he insists.

“I’m a gigantic new services risk taker,” Donovan said. “I’m not at all a risk taker as it relates to security and privacy.”

There is a push in general to get the carriers moving faster when it comes to Android and many have responded. At last week’s Google I/O conference, Google announced an effort to get carriers and hardware makers to commit to faster Android operating system upgrades and to agree to provide such updates for at least 18 months after a new device is introduced. AT&T, along with other major carriers, was listed as among those agreeing to the pact.

Going forward, AT&T plans to allow users to side-load apps on all future Android devices. In the interview last month, Donovan said the company wouldn’t open up side-loading until the company was confident it could protect users, something he said they were working on.

“We are maintaining the same level of security against malicious apps,” an AT&T representative said on Tuesday. “To protect that security, I can’t comment further.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work