Q&A: Amazon's Appstore director on using AWS for building mobile apps

We sat down with the director of Amazon's Appstore to find out how developers can use AWS for building apps from start to finish.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SEATTLE -- There are few technology companies with as vast and diverse a portfolio as Amazon, and the Internet behemoth is busy connecting some of the less-than-obvious dots.


One of those more subtle ones would be between Amazon Web Services and the Amazon Appstore for Android.

As discussed during the first AWS conference last November in Las Vegas, Amazon is touting itself as a one-stop shop for app developers being that it could support developers from start to finish -- and really beyond if all goes well.

Quite simply, that means starting by building the app on AWS, selling it in the Appstore, and then scaling the business back on AWS if the app is successful.

Also tucked in there are possibilities for in-app purchasing and sales of physical goods from Amazon's retail arm as well as optimization opportunities for the Kindle Fire.

I recently sat down with Aaron Rubenson, director of the Amazon Appstore, at the company's new South Lake Union campus in Seattle to learn more about how app developers can use AWS as well as how Amazon plays into the Android ecosystem overall. Here's what I discovered:

On the synergies between Amazon Web Services and courting developers: For Amazon, Rubenson explained that the vision is to help developers over an entire spectrum.

Breaking that down, for a developer building an app, Rubenson started with the design and development stages, citing that's where AWS comes in. From there, he outlined that that once you have the app, you need to distribute it, market it, get customers to download it and need to monetize it somehow.

Again, from Amazon's perspective, that's where the Kindle Fire and the Amazon Appstore figure in the game.

"We're at a point where we can really help developers across the full spectrum of their needs," Rubenson said.

Amazon is also busy trying to court developers by touting itself as a one-stop shop for every service imaginable. For example, Rubenson pointed out that if you're a developer and you want to sell digital goods (i.e. upgrades, subscriptions, etc.) to your customers, Amazon enables them to use its one-click payments infrastructure.

The benefits for developers: Rubenson remarked that developers just want to focus on their intellectual property and how they're going to make their apps different. He acknowledged that the infrastructure is typically "less exciting and really hard." Assuming the app is successful, it will need to scale -- and likely fast.

AWS is trying to frame itself as the quick and easy remedy as it should take care of this automatically and cost-effectively without the need to add physical servers.

Rubenson briefly glossed over the upcoming release of Amazon Coins this May. Little is known about the recently announced virtual currency, except that customers can uses it to buy apps and games. Rubenson said that this will be a great option for developers, suggesting the more payment options the better as they will still receive 70 percent of the returns just like they would with credit cards.

As for developers expecting to get better promotion in the Amazon Appstore just because they're AWS customers too? Don't bet on it.

"We always start with the customers' interests in mind and work backwards," Rubenson explained. "When it comes to what we promote, we want to put forward the best apps and games. What I will say is the apps and games that use AWS tend to scale really well, so that makes them higher quality. But no, we don't give special treatment to [AWS-based] apps."

The benefits for Amazon: The most obvious benefit for Amazon is more customers (developers and consumers) all over the company from the cloud unit to retail.

But when asked if Amazon is trying to get exclusives on apps, he pondered a bit and described the concept as "interesting," but he asserted that's not the point of AWS. He explained that this scheme is designed for developers, following up that Amazon already has a successful distribution method in the form of the Kindle Fire.

"In general, our thinking is that by having really great products, customers favored apps and games. They're going to find them and buy them whether they're exclusive or not," Rubenson commented.

For more on this topic, check out the ZDNet and TechRepublic Special Feature Cloud: How to Do SaaS Right.

How Amazon differs from other app stores: "Because we sell more than apps and games, we have some unique opportunities to work with developers and market their IP -- whatever channel it happens to be in," Rubenson said, adding that whether it's video shorts or other digital content, Amazon has the power to market all of it together.

He continued that Amazon also has the resources to find customers who might be interested thanks to data about previous purchases and shopping behavior.

"We love to work one-on-one with developers to see who we're targeting," Rubenson continued, adding that Amazon has both the data as well as an established and consumer-trusted brand that lends itself to encouraging things like in-app purchasing for physical goods.

How Amazon's Appstore guarantees safe apps for customers: "We test every app before publishing in our store," Rubenson affirmed. "First we just want to make sure they work well for majority of our customers -- not only for the Kindle Fire but also other Android devices."

Rubenson added that there are content guidelines in place to ensure there's nothing "super offensive" in the Appstore. Perhaps most importantly, Rubenson asserted that Amazon is actively checking for malware before publishing it to the Appstore.

He admitted that can cause a bit of friction, but he touted it's the "right thing" for the Amazon customer base.

Being that the Kindle Fire (among other Android devices) is also advertised as a family-friendly one, Rubenson cited a feature called "Kindle Freetime."
Rubenson described that this is based on the trend of parents passing the tablet to kids in the backseat of a car to keep them entertained while in transit. After seeing this trend emerge with the release of the first Kindle Fire, Rubenson said that Freetime was an experience built from the ground up for the second generation.
Essentially, it's a digital "playpen" in which the parents can designate which content is available for their children to view. Furthermore, it also prohibits purchasing and turns all location-based features off.
"We think it's another great feature driving engagement and discovery, especially for children-oriented content," Rubenson reflected, adding that it also encourages engagement with the parents, who could then become fans of particular developers and their IP.

On educating developers about privacy concerns and app permissions: Privacy and the limits of permissions on apps might be a never-ending debate topic -- especially as the data generated by mobile apps grows exponentially bigger by the day.

There are many possibilities about how that data can be used to improve the user experience, but that might not be much of a justification to many consumers. Rubenson replied that "Android by design is a declarative model," explaining that the developers and mobile app stores have their guidelines, but ultimately it's the consumers who decide what is appropriate for them or not.

"Clearly the apps are Android apps, so they're using the same permissions framework," Rubenson clarified. "From a consumer's perspective, we have a page where we explain our website and what each permission means."

Rubenson noted that if the Appstore team spots a permission that might be "odd," it could be flagged and halted from publishing until further review.

How Amazon fits into the Android ecosystem and its relationship with Google: "We interact with Google in so many different ways," Rubenson affirmed, noting diplomatically that "it's a big relationship that's existed for many years."

That said, Rubenson argued that in terms of mobile apps specifically, Amazon knows "a ton" about its customers' activity over the years through the online retail arm, which he asserted "can drive discovery that wouldn't be happening away."

Rubenson posited that's good for the Android ecosystem overall, but he also asserted that when it comes to Android tablets, the Kindle Fire has been the driver for encouraging developers to optimize their apps for tablets in general rather than just settling for an enlarged (and very un-user friendly) version of smartphone apps.

Image via Amazon

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