Digital, meet physical: Amazon brings real-world purchases to Android apps

What if a calorie counting app made it easy to restock your fridge by selling the food listed in its extensive database? What if a football game let you purchase a special edition jersey for yourself, and then clothe your digital team in that same jersey?

That’s the future Amazon is hoping to see with its new Mobile Associates API, which lets developers turn any app for Kindle Fire or the Amazon Appstore into a one-click shopping destination, even for real-world items.

Using the new API, app creators can hawk nearly anything Amazon offers, including physical products and digital downloads such as e-books. There are three ways developers can sell Amazon goods inside their apps: offer a single item for sale, showcase a category of goods, or bundle the purchase of physical goods with digital goods.

Amazon

That last category isn’t so obvious so here’s an example from Amazon’s developer pages for a theoretical fitness tracking app. A developer could try and sell a jogger a heart rate monitor from Amazon inside the app. If the user bought it, the app could then unlock the ability to integrate with the Amazon-purchased monitor for free. In-app digital goods, in other words, could be used as inducements to buy Amazon’s physical items.

Mobile Associates is an extension of Amazon’s affiliate program that numerous Websites and podcasts use to supplement their income. The basic gist of the program is that you send customers to Amazon and then you get a cut of whatever that person spends at the online retailer. Under the mobile version, developers will get up to a 6 percent kickback on qualifying in-app purchases.

It’s encouraging to see Amazon offering an alternative to current app revenue models such as in-app purchases of digital goods, subscriptions and advertising. But Amazon is billing Mobile Associates as a way to create a better experience for users while simultaneously offering a new way to monetize an app for developers.

That’s a laudable goal, but it’s easy to see where functionality like this could go horribly, horribly wrong.

Angry Birds, everywhere

To see how bad in-app advertising can become, look no further than the ever-popular Angry Birds game from Rovio. In Angry Birds, there are ads when you pause the game, when you start a new level, and even when your current level is just finishing up. In every moment of the game where you are not playing, you are guaranteed to find some kind of ad for another Rovio game, Rovio Accounts, or Angry Birds plush toys.

Now extend this approach to every app you know, but instead of Rovio games and plush toys, you’re seeing offers to buy everything from ab rollers to UFO detectors. Thankfully, Amazon set a limit on how many products can be offered per app—but not-so-thankfully, the upper limit is 1,000 products.

In some cases, though, a complimentary in-app purchase makes sense. IMDb, for example, already links to Amazon search pages based on the movie you’re looking up. So why not make it easier to link directly to the DVD or digital download instead? Amazon’s Mobile Associates could be a great addition to an app if used sparingly. But if apps start trying to sell everything under the sun, that could turn into a mobile nightmare pretty quickly.

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