Attack of the Clones – Encountering an Android Market Plagiarist

On Thursday evening I received a message on Twitter¬†drawing my attention to a new app on Android Market that bore an uncanny resemblance to Rectangular Software’s own Appmonger app for tracking app sales on Android Market. And by “uncanny resemblance” I mean “almost entirely identical”. So much so that both myself and other Appmonger users who looked at it were convinced that the distributor of this app had downloaded the Appmonger .apk, removed the licensing protection, made a few cosmetic changes and republished it under their own name. The feature set and UI structure were identical, the on-screen labels matched word-for-word and the charts were in most cases visually so close as to be almost indistinguishable. The final insult was that the app was made available as a free download whereas Appmonger sells for ¬£2.49 / $3.99.

Appmonger vs. CrapmongerThe motivation for cracking a niche paid app and giving it away for free is not at all clear. It would have required a fair bit of effort since the Appmonger code is obfuscated. The person responsible had not added any adverts so they did not stand to derive any direct financial benefit from their actions. Perhaps they had added some malware to the app?

A visit to the website linked from Android Market revealed that the perpetrator is a woman in Texas. As well as promoting the app, the website included a support page that was remarkably similar to the Appmonger FAQ on the Rectangular Software website (question titles were identical but the answers had been reworded slightly).

On her blog she claimed to have spent $4,152.11 on developing “her” new app (seemingly the first and so far only app that she has released). On the surface this was an odd claim for an apparently pirated app. I could at least confirm that she had spent $3.99 because a search in Google Checkout revealed that the same person had legitimately purchased a copy of Appmonger on October 21st 2011.

The Plot Thickens

When I later had time to analyse the suspect app more closely, I discovered that things weren’t quite as they had originally seemed. Playing around with the app on an old phone (I didn’t trust it on my phone), I noticed that the whole experience had more rough edges than Appmonger. If this was modified Rectangular Software code then the modifications had been done clumsily and introduced issues that weren’t there previously. Digging around in the .apk, the structure of the app was not as familiar as I expected it to be. If this was modified Rectangular Software code then they had gone to some lengths to try to disguise that fact. Furthermore, I discovered that this app uses achartengine to generate at least some of its charts whereas Appmonger uses custom chart classes that I wrote myself. That at least explains why the line charts look different between the two apps.

There are enough differences for me to entertain the possibility that the person distributing this app did actually pay somebody to build it from scratch and what we’re looking at is a very uninspired clone rather than a pirated and modified version of the original Appmonger. Though why on earth anybody would spend thousands of dollars going to such lengths and not at least try to make something a bit different is beyond me.

On the other hand, there are also certain similarities that would be unlikely to occur without reverse engineering of the original app, particularly in regards to the back end services and the database (all table, column and index names are identical between the two apps except for a few extra columns in the clone).

Anybody is free to create an alternative Google Checkout reporting app and give it away for free if they so choose. As a competitor I might not like it but I’d have little cause for complaint. However, regardless of whether or not it includes any Rectangular Software code, this app takes the sincerest form of flattery to ludicrous extremes.