Chrome’s extension marketplace has been taking it on the chin lately due to the ever-increasing number of popular extensions choosing to sell out and become burdened with adware or even full-on malware. Lowell at How-To Geek wrote a good article digging into the details of a few examples.

This storm has been brewing for some time though. Chrome extensions have flirted with the distinction between ad-supported freeware and something less honest for years. However, the situation has finally built to a critical mass that Google could not ignore.

Coupled with silent automatic updates, this outcome was almost guaranteed by the combination of three forces at work in the Chrome extension marketplace (and sadly, most other app/addon stores):

  • In the eyes of most consumers, app stores have managed to marginalize the value of quality software down to somewhere between free and $0.99 (or a whopping $1.49 if you include the Windows Store).
  • Quality software costs a significant amount of money to develop. Sure, a good developer might technically be able to build something like that from scratch, but they still pay the opportunity cost of working for free all that time. Even programmers need to eat.
  • Supporting software can be a soul-crushing chore for one person. As you build a large user base of non-technical users, what begins as a labor of love can quickly become a nightmare. Being quasi-responsible for supporting software that you don’t get paid to support is simply untenable.

With no prospect of charging even pennies for these extensions, despite the burden of ongoing development and supporting thousands of users, it’s easy to understand why extension owners are accepting these lucrative deals. I’d like to think I wouldn’t take the money myself, but some of the deals I’ve seen mentioned would not be easy to turn down.

In the short term, this particular situation with Chrome extensions is probably solvable with a more granular permissions model, better curation, and notification when extensions are automatically updated.

In the long term, what’s fundamentally missing is a way for developers to make these projects financially viable without resorting to selling out their users. At this point, I think we’ve definitely determined that developers hoping a $0.99 app hits the app store lottery jackpot is not sustainable for anyone involved.

I don’t know what the answer to that larger problem is. Do you?