Android fragmentation turning devices into a toxic hellstew of vulnerabilities

I’m a big fan of Android, not only because I use the platform, but also because I feel that competition in the mobile space has been good. This competition has allowed a technological version of Darwinian evolution to come about that makes the strong platforms even stronger while at the same time weeding out those floundering in the shallow end of the mobile tech gene pool.

Android itself is a strong operating system, but the way that the platform is delivered to end-users is critically flawed. Rather than taking the iOS approach where updates are sent to users directly, Google chose to adopt a much more convoluted approach.

Whenever Google releases either an update to Android – whether that be a tweaks and bugfixes or critical patches for serious flaws – or a completely a new version of operating system, the code then goes to device OEMs to be customized with their own tweaks and personalizations. Then, for smartphones and tablets that are hooked to a carrier contract, the carriers then get a chance to add their own branding. Not only is this a long chain, but the problem is made exponentially worse by the fact that neither the OEMs nor the carriers feel there’s much of a benefit in pushing free software updates to customers, and would much rather focus on selling those people a new device.

Bottom line, unless you buy a smartphone or tablet from Google — and pay the full, unlocked price — then you’re at the mercy of the OEM and carriers.

One of the biggest problems with this fragmentation is that a huge number of users – numbering the hundreds of millions –are being left vulnerable to malware and data theft as a result of bugs and vulnerabilities in the code.

Two security issues that have surfaced lately have highlighted just how serious this problem has become. First there was the Pileup bugs which left every Android-powered smartphone and tablet – more than a billion devices in all – vulnerable to malware thanks to privilege escalation issues. Then came the Heartbleed OpenSSL bug. It turns out that this bug reaches much closer to home than servers, and the bug affects certain flavors of Android 4.1.x Jelly Bean. That might seem a limited issue until you realize that this version powers some 35 percent of all Android devices currently in use.

That’s a huge problem, and one that is likely to hang around until these devices either die or are taken out of circulation, and given that over 17 percent of devices out there are still running Android 2.3.x Gingerbread.

Android’s fragmented ecosystem, and the reliance on OEMs and carriers to push updates to the majority of users has finally caught up with the platform. This should send chills down the spines of IT admins who have embraced Android for BYOD. It would chill me to the bone, and it would make me think twice about allowing old Android devices inside my digital fortress. Same would go for old iOS devices, but there some 87 percent of users are running iOS 7, with a further 11 percent running iOS 6. Fragmentation is far less of a problem here because Apple pushes updates direct to the users.

Android needs to gets its house in order, and only Google can do that, either by strong-arming the OEMs and carriers or making it possible to update the operating system without needing to go through the carriers.


Could Microsoft Hijack Android?

This would give Microsoft the long-tail apps it desperately needs to keep Windows 8 and Windows Phone viable.

Last December I wrote a piece for in which I suggested that Microsoft embrace Android for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. I argued that Microsoft would never get the long-tail apps for Windows desktop or mobile platform, but there was a solid way to offer Android apps within the Windows framework.

I even suggested that it adopt the Bluestacks player and tunnel into the world of over a million Android apps. A user would not even know whether they were using an Android or Windows app. This would give Microsoft the long-tail apps it desperately needs to keep Windows 8 and Windows Phone viable in the future.

When I wrote that column, I was not aware of the work Nokia was doing to create a dedicated Android Phone (pictured) using the Android Open System Platform (AOSP). But instead of offering Google’s dedicated apps and services, Nokia installed Microsoft’s services and cloud apps. We got to see this before it was introduced at Mobile World Congress in February, and I immediately realized that this was groundbreaking from a soon-to-be Microsoft company and could have a lot of ramifications for Nokia and Microsoft in the near future.

While Microsoft has somewhat downplayed Nokia’s Android phones and continues to say its mobile strategy is focused on Windows Phone, this move by Nokia could actually become a blueprint for how Microsoft embraces Android and makes it their own. While it would require Microsoft to eat some humble pie, I see the idea of bringing Android apps into the Windows ecosystem as a powerful way for it to extend its OS market reach and potential and at the same time wrestle some control from Google in the process.

So, how could it do this? The simplest way would be to use the Bluestacks player and make it a tile in Windows 8 that connects it directly to the world of Android apps. And instead of tying the apps and services to Google Play, it instead creates a dedicated Microsoft Android store and services area and substitutes anything that Google has in this space for Microsoft products.

All Android apps are written under the basic AOSP architecture but are currently tied to Google Play. But it would not be difficult for Microsoft to create a Microsoft Android store and offer to all Android app providers the APIs to hook into Microsoft’s Android store. Or just use Nokia’s new Android store and funnel the apps through that. Android app vendors would be crazy not to support this since it expands their audience for apps and could get them more money for their paid apps. There are currently 150 million Windows 8 customers and another 280-290 million Windows 8 PCs are expected to ship in calendar 2014.

Microsoft could do the same thing on Windows Phone. In this case, it would use the core Windows Phone OS, which includes all of Microsoft’s apps and services, and then use the Bluestack player to deliver the Android apps. This would mean that all Windows Phones would now also have access to 1 million-plus Android apps and the long-tail content and apps that Windows Phone desperately needs to grow.

Microsoft already makes money on Android due to license agreements with most of the Android hardware vendors now and using this strategy it could pretty much hijack Android for its own purposes, a prospect that is just too delicious for Redmond not to consider.


North Jersey app developers challenged by competition, changing marketplace

Rod Gammon, owner of West Milford-based Limitless Horizons LLC, has developed $1 apps focused on child education. Here, his daughter Petra, 7, played one. – See more at:

Smartphone application developers say they are challenged by the glut of apps as well as the need to update their software to keep up with evolving phone technology, making creative pricing strategies essential to finding their niche.

“The coding is always changing, but awareness is one of our biggest challenges because there are so many apps out there,” said Joel Holl, chief operating officer of Clifton-based app developer Pervasive Group Inc. “There are a lot of people vying for customers’ attention. So getting above all of the noise is a challenge, especially for a small business.”

Local developers said tight advertising budgets make it difficult to lure customers who are deluged with millions of downloadable options at marketplaces such as Google Play or Apple’s App Store.

According to AppBrain, a website that tracks the number of apps available on Android’s Google Play store, there were more than 1 million apps available for download as of April 7. Apple Inc.’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, said the company topped the 1 million level in 2013.

Pervasive Group’s flagship app, “MMGuardian,” allows parents to monitor their children’s use of smartphones. Once Pervasive Group’s app is installed on a child’s phone, a parent is able to limit the time certain apps can be used, can monitor text messages for inappropriate language and is able to block calls.

Holl said that since MMGuardian’s launch in January 2013, the app had been listed in the “100,000 to 500,000 downloads” category of Google Play. To attract new customers, Holl said, MMGuardian had multiple payment options for parents with different levels of comfort or desire to monitor their children’s smartphone use.

Lyndhurst-based app developer SpeechTrans is experimenting with a similar model.

John Frei, the co-founder and CEO of SpeechTrans, said the company originally charged customers a one-time fee to download its apps, which are various speech-to-speech and speech-recognition apps that can translate into 44 languages. Frei said the suite of SpeechTrans apps has more than 1.1 million downloads on Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

Frei said the company was shifting to a “freemium” model, where the application will be free to download, but after a predetermined amount of translations or days used, it will prompt the customer to buy a subscription to a premium application.

“We are always watching how the market is trending,” Frei said. “Being the size we are, we can be nimble and make quick decisions.”

Other developers said that while standing out is difficult, the need to be vigilant of changing software also presents a challenge.

Rod Gammon, owner of West Milford-based Limitless Horizons LLC, has developed two $1 apps focused on child education. In 2012 his company released “Math in a Minute,” a math exercise app that quizzes its user. This year he released “Monster Tales,” an app that allows children to create characters that can interact with each other using a voice recording. Both are available on Apple’s iTunes app store and average 2,500 users a week, he said.

To keep ahead of the changes in the operating system, Gammon said, he receives an announcement from Apple that says when an update is scheduled. He said he attends events Apple hosts that explain the changes, so when he sits down to code, he knows what he may need to address in his app’s coding.

“Every year there is an update to Apple’s operating system, and then there are always little updates throughout the year,” Gammon said. “A change in their software capabilities can force us to go down to our coding in the app and change things. Just to stay still in this market, you have to update the app constantly.”

Gammon said updating operating system technology each year has limited his ability to allow the app to be used “across platforms,” such as on an Android devise.

“We would like to be a cross-platform app; it’s really just a reality of how much time I have,” Gammon said. “I do all of the coding for the games myself. I just can’t do everything.”


Tizen & Ubuntu: All dressed app but nowhere to go

NEW BLOG: With the dominance of Android and iOS, the prospect of new mobile operating systems that could challenge their market share is always welcome for developers looking for alternative channels to distribute their apps.

Open source mobile platforms Tizen and Ubuntu have been in development for some time, with Tizen having some big-name backers, but despite their promise it is unclear when exactly they will see a proper release on smartphones.

Currently, there is no commercially-available hardware running the Ubuntu mobile OS (although deals have been struck with Spanish player bq and China’s Meizu), while the only devices running Tizen are Samsung’s digital camera and Gear smart watches.

But despite the lack of hardware, numerous developers appear to be working on apps for both platforms.

Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu mobile platform, recently told Mobile World Live that he is confident about growth of the app ecosystem around the OS, noting that prominent app players, such as Evernote, have committed to the platform.

Marcus Elliott, CEO of cross platform development tool maker Marmalade, meanwhile recently discussed the “hundreds and hundreds” of apps that have been developed for Tizen using Marmalade’s technology.

The Samsung devices provide a limited opportunity for developers of certain types of apps for Tizen, but the lack of smartphones running either OS means numerous apps are being built that will sit around waiting for a device to make use of them.

Clearly, having a large number of apps available when devices are launched is advantageous in driving uptake of Tizen and Ubuntu. Indeed, one of the reasons attributed to the relatively lacklustre uptake of Windows Phone was its initial lack of big-name apps.

But the fact these apps are being developed is fairly meaningless for developers until there are devices on which they can be used.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: developers are building apps for platforms that aren’t yet commercially available, while the success of the platforms will depend, partly at least, on the number of apps available.

What Ubuntu and Marmalade’s work with Tizen have in common is that the apps developed for the platforms can be re-used on other mobile operating systems.

Shuttleworth touted the cross-platform capabilities of Ubuntu as developers can build a single app that works on a phone, tablet or PC. Ubuntu also supports HTML5, alongside native development, meaning programs that work on Ubuntu will work elsewhere.

Likewise, apps developed on Marmalade can be transitioned to other platforms using its cross-OS technology, which Elliott pointed out means they aren’t “wasted work”.

But one wonders whether developers would have produced these apps if it wasn’t for the possibility to distribute on other platforms, which also begs the questions of whether developers really have high hopes for Tizen and Ubuntu.

Elliott argues that apps are being produced for Tizen because “developers love new technology”, while the availability of Ubuntu for desktop and cloud means developers find it natural to support the mobile version, according to Shuttleworth.

This may be the case, but in this day and age, when only a few developers see their apps become successful on any kind of level, there is little scope for spending time and resources on building apps that aren’t guaranteed to have a distribution platform.

Realistically, commercial devices supporting Ubuntu will emerge on a small-scale basis sometime this year in light of recent progress (although the wait for a Tizen smartphone is becoming a long one). But producing apps for platforms with near-zero traction is a gamble for developers. Clearly, they will have other pans in the fire, in terms of mobile platforms they develop for, but it’s debatable whether working on these yet-to-be-launched platforms will be worth it.

Of course, the gamble could pay off for developers that produce apps that come to define Tizen and Ubuntu by exploiting their features. But these apps will have limited scope for generating revenue unless the platforms take off in a significant way.

But for developers whose apps aren’t a success, developing for Tizen or Ubuntu may be a risk that’s not worth taking.


Android on top

The popularity of Google’s Android operating system has been affirmed by new data showing that most handheld devices run on the platform.

The figures released by research firm Gartner also project that it will also be the fastest growing operating system used for mobiles, tablets and other handheld devices in future.

Sample this: over 37 per cent of the 2.3 billion devices being used in 2013 ran on Google’s Android operating system.

Windows and iOS have numbers that are less than half of what Android has managed.

Its future looks robust too. Gartner predicts that the number of Android-based devices is set to increase by over a third in 2014, implying that four out of ten devices worldwide would use the operating system. Shipments of devices using Apple’s iOS platform, on the other hand, would increase by over 18 per cent. By 2015, every other device would use the operating system developed by Google.

The growth is attributed to adoption of the Android OS by leading mobile and tablet-makers, as well as emerging firms like Micromax and Karbonn in India. Recently, even Microsoft launched an Android-based mobile device to cater to a wider audience.

The other key trend emerging from the report is that while mobile devices shipments would grow in single digits, tablet sales would rise at a scorching pace of nearly 39 per cent in 2014 as penetration increases in markets outside North America.

Inexpensive offerings from companies in emerging markets would drive growth. Personal computers, however, would continue to witness falling shipments as demand slackens for the systems and users upgrade to mobile devices.


Android KitKat use doubles but Jelly Bean rules

Google, Inc. said KitKat, the latest iteration of its Android OS, runs 5.3 percent of Android devices worldwide as of April 1 compared to 2.5 percent a month earlier.

This because South Korean smartphone and tablet makers Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics have begun rolling out KitKat on some of their most popular digital devices.

Jelly Bean, however, still lords it over all Android versions. Jelly Bean (versions 4.1.x , 4.2.x, and 4.3) is running on a total of 61.4 percent of all Android devices, Google said.

Older Gingerbread still runs 17.8 percent of Android devices while Ice Cream Sandwich keeps 14.3 percent going.

Very few Android devices are still running the earliest versions of the mobile OS. Some 1.1 percent are on Froyo, while just 0.1 percent are running the tablet-centric Honeycomb.

Google’s data is based on smartphone and tablet visits to the Play Store app, which supports Android 2.2 and above. This means that devices running older versions are not included.

Google said that in August, 2013 that versions older than Android 2.2 comprised about one percent of devices that checked in to Google servers and not those that actually visited Google Play Store.

Google’s new numbers come after Apple last week said that 85 percent of iPads, iPhones and iPod touch devices are running iOS 7, six months after the mobile OS made its debut. Twelve percent are still using iOS 6 while only 3 percent are running an older version of Cupertino’s mobile OS.

Google claims Android is the world’s most popular mobile OS, powering more than a billion phones and tablets.