My first newspaper of the day is usually read on a smartphone or a tablet since I wake up much before my news agent drops my quota of print dailies at the doorstep. However, over the past few weeks, I have struggled to read stuff online, thanks to a bug that hijacks the browser and sends me to some other page. I am sure I am not the only one struggling with such viruses. And most of us don’t realise that we only invited them on to our devices, most probably through an app.
A study by Nielsen in the US last year showed that an average smartphone user used 26.8 apps, spending over 30 hours every month browsing through them. Indian users, too, keep adding apps that they fancy, often momentarily, without really looking what these apps could be doing to your phone. This is not an issue for iOS users; but the Android world is so full of such apps which want to do more than what they claim to.
During a chat on the sidelines of the CES in Las Vegas, Saket Modi, the CEO of online cyber security company Lucideus Tech, showed me a new app from his company. UnHack analyses all the apps on your phone and tells you what all access and permission each app has. The results will be surprising for sure. For instance, why would a torch app want access to your mails, SMSs and contacts? But that is how apps work these days.
While some take all the permission, hoping to use other features of the phone with a later version of the app, others only have ulterior motives.
The smartphone is the most personal and connected of all computing devices and carries a lot of data that could be of great use to people who want to misuse it. From photographs to banking emails, rogue apps find themselves in a virtual goldmine once inside a smartphone.
It is ultimately up to the user to figure out which apps to keep out and which ones to download. While downloading, it would be a good idea to actually read the permissions that are being sought. But you can also take a conscious decision to allow apps to access some of the personal information so that you can benefit from the app. A typical example is Google on an Android phone. It knows everything about you and is using this data to make life better. Of course, not all of us are comfortable letting Google or anyone have a look into what we are talking or where we are.
So you might think an app such as Xploree from KeyPoint technologies is starting on the backfoot. KeyPoint has already tasted success with its predictive text application Adaptxt and now wants to give people a chance to search and discover before they are on the keyboard. So Xploree lets you search for coffee shops even as you type to ask your friend whether he is free for a chat over a cuppa. The search is completely user initiated and the results will soon be contextual for location and preferences. “The keyboard is the most engaged of the things that you use on the smartphone,” explains CEO Sumit Goswami, adding that they will be able to offer more relevant results than Google does in certain cases.
But while the search will be user initiated, the results will have more than its fair share of partner brands and services, which could have a lower tolerance level with at least some.
But do you always want the phone to do the thinking for you? What if the smart thing to do is to let the smartphone be dumb for sometime. Still in public beta, InstantRecall has a very traditional approach to solving a modern day problem—remembering details about our hundreds of contacts and business partners. The app lets you add notes to contacts to remind you about personal details, personality traits, interests, even what you discussed last time and maybe what not to discuss the next time. “The goal is to make it effortless to recall personal information about people you value. And there is no resource in the market that focuses on personal information about people,” says Tim Owen, Founder & CEO at NeuroCrunch, underlining the fact that his app is not trying to replace the contact manager on the phone. He could have collated a lot of this data from Facebook and LinkedIn, but as we learnt in school, memory works better when we have written down something. So having fed details into the app might make you recall the same even without opening the app the next time you meet a business associate after a long period. Owen is aiming to create a platform that can be accessed from the web and will help users over long term. Yes, you can have a smart app without it being a slave of context engines and databases.