It should have been the brightest piece of news for BlackBerry in months. Monday’s launch of its long-awaited BlackBerry Messenger apps for iOS and Android devices should have been cause for celebration for the smartphone maker after an ongoing string of increasingly dark-tinged headlines.
Instead, BlackBerry found itself in damage control mode after reports began surfacing Wednesday that a number of positive reviews posted to the Google Play app store were fake. Many of the reviews on the five-star scale were identical to each other, suggesting they had been cut-and-pasted in an attempt to boost the average rating.
Cleaning up the mess
BlackBerry director of PR for BBM, Victoria Berry, said in a statement that the company is doing its best to resolve the issue.
“We have recently been made aware of a number of potentially fake five-star reviews of BBM for Android on Google Play,” she said. “We do not approve of or condone such activities and are committed to working with Google to resolve this.”
Berry said the allegedly suspect reviews cloud what should have been a positive experience for BBM users, and distract attention from legitimate reviews posted by well-meaning users.
This isn’t BlackBerry’s first challenge with Google’s app store. It was a prematurely leaked version of BBM for Android last month – downloaded by over 1.1 million users within eight hours – that prompted BlackBerry to put its initial rollout plans for both BBM for Android and iOS on hold as it repackaged the Android version to avoid potential conflict with the leaked – and incomplete – version of the app.
Google not playing around
It isn’t the first time Google Play has had to deal with questionable reviews of apps posted to its libraries. As the number of apps available has grown – it hit 1 million in July, while Apple only announced hitting the milestone this week during its iPad Air launch event – developers have had to become ever more creative to ensure their apps stand out. Fake reviews with strong ratings can artificially increase an app’s visibility and appeal.
Amid rising complaints about the practice, Google last year banned anonymous reviews, and now requires those posting reviews to do so using a linked Google+ account. Since November, users have been required to post under a Google+ account. New York lawmakers last month announced plans to outlaw fake online reviews that have plagued a wide range of sites across the Internet.
Google’s online market is known for being less restrictive than Apple’s iTunes App Store, which requires all apps – both paid and free – to be submitted for review by Apple before they are approved to go live on the site. Since being launched as Android market in October 2008, Google’s more laissez-faire approach with its since-renamed Google Play has allowed a number of apps to slip through the cracks, including a number of titles that contained malware and other security vulnerabilities.
Earlier this month, Google pulled a number of titles that used a code library, known as “Vulna”, that was capable of secretly copying users’ confidential data – including contacts, phone call history and text messages – and sending it to a third party. While the code itself was not malicious, it rendered affected Android device vulnerable to attacks by hackers. In April, Google busted a fake ad network that had embedded malware in Anrdoid apps.
Despite the review glitch, users don’t seem to be deterred. Both BBM apps notched 10 million downloads in the first 24 hours following Monday’s launch, and the iOS version climbed to the top Apple’s top free app rankings within its first day of availability. So much for the value of reviews, fake or otherwise.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org