Android Permissions Misery

We recently noticed something pretty worrying when looking at our rating:

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.28.26

After a year in which our averaged rating has climbed up almost every day, it has started to decline. Why? The app is working better than ever, with every update we aim to make it a little faster and smoother and with the last update we even reduced the file size a bit.

What’s going on?

We did some drilling down and noticed that the decline is all due to poor ratings on Android 4.4, where the ratings have dived from 4.3 to less than 4 in under a week.

And yet, we love Android 4.4 and Android 4.4 loves the app, we’ve been testing on a Nexus 5 (a thing of great beauty) for a while now and it has always performed brilliantly. After a few fruitless search for bugs, we noticed that we’d been getting a few more queries about permissions than usual, especially on Android 4.4.2, the very latest Android update.

One of our users was kind enough to send a screen shot:

perms

This should not be happening.

In fact there are two problems here:

  • These permissions have been in the app for a year (in the case of the ‘use storage’  - which we use for exporting your readings in .csv form to a memory card). Conclusion: These permissions are not new.
  • We recently STOPPED these permissions from applying to Android 4.4. Conclusion: These permissions should not even be there!*

Note, the “Read Contacts” permission was needed pre-Jelly Bean to access the call logs, we do this in order to count the number of minutes you have used (you can see this on the Stats Tab) we hope this helps people monitor their usage. For Jelly Bean and later versions a specific “Read Call Logs” permission was added, so we added some code* to mean that the Read Contacts Permission only applies to devices below Jelly Bean, clearly this code is not doing its job.

[Please note, we NEVER read SMS messages or the contacts log - the latter is easily verifiable to users of Android 4.3 who can make use of App Ops to see that the contacts list is not accessed. For more on permissions: our permissions explained]

The flagging of this permission is entirely responsible for our drop in ratings – we’ve worked this out but going through the comments and ratings  one by one, almost all are in reaction to this apparent change in permissions.

Considering that this problem of marking old permission as new is occurring only for users of 4.4.2 this bug may be related to the removal of App Ops, this is pure conjecture but considering that App Ops was not meant to be released and this is also in the permissions section it seems reasonable.

A couple of lessons for developers:

  • Users care highly about permissions, and rightly so, if you need to make a change that requires adding a new permission be sure to highlight why you are doing this in terms of what features it is adding.
  • If you have an app with some of the above permissions you may want to make a note in the “recent changes” box that appears on Google Play.

A more general thought, Android and iOS are often described as ecosystems and they are: your app is not out there on its own, its success depends on a lot of code that other people have written, the Android APIs, APIs for social networks, the device’s basic functioning. Due to the diversity of Android – which we cover in depth in our Fragmentation Report – I believe it is the most dynamic mobile ecosystem, and that’s not always a good thing.

We’ve often come up against problems in APIs being implemented on particular devices, we once, for about 8 frantic hours, had our app mis-labelled as a Trojan by a popular virus scanner (the problem was in the obfuscation of a mapping library, we discovered it a 3am on a Saturday morning, ouch).

You can never rest completely easy with a released app, not when you have 5 million users to annoy :)

Help us out

So what can you do to help? Download the Android app and give us a five star rating, if you gave it a 1 star rating switch it round!

Consider it your Christmas present to the OpenSignal team.

What’s our Christmas present to you? … A more open way of looking at coverage and network quality with our crowdsourced coverage maps.

… And this picture of a cat in a christmas hat:

Cats-in-santa-hats-30

Source VH1

* for the technically curious the code to remove permissions at a particular API level looks like this:

<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.READ_CONTACTS" android:maxSdkVersion="15"/>
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE" android:maxSdkVersion="18" />

It’s a nifty feature, unfortunately it doesn’t work. And on 4.4.2 it really doesn’t work.
Please consider starring these bugs reports here:
https://code.google.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=63895&thanks=63895&ts=1387452878
https://code.google.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=63898&thanks=63898&ts=1387455512

 
Discuss on HN

Posted in Android Development, App Update, FAQ | 4 Comments

What does 24 hours of OpenSignal data look like?

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 15.31.51
The above image shows all the signal readings we have collected from the OpenSignal app over the past 24 hours. We’ve been looking for a way to emphasise quite how much data our community shares with us, and simply plotting every data point from a 24 hour period appears to be the best way of showing the full extent of the app’s popularity.

Every point on that map means a signal reading or speedtest, all of which go towards helping us build our crowdsourced coverage maps – helping us map the state of the world’s signal. To help contribute to the map, download the OpenSignal app from the header above.

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We built an Android Arduino Cake

Yesterday we hit 5 Million downloads of the OpenSignal Android app, naturally a cause for celebration. Celebrating, to our minds, = cake, but we wanted this cake to be different, to be really appropriate for the occasion. Sure we could have gone out and bought a chocolate cake. Sure we could have messily attempted to bake something which would have inevitably failed to rise, leaving us munching on the bitter-almond taste of failure and other people’s disappointment. Sure, we could have done either of those things. But we didn’t, instead we built a cake that was part-machine, part-marzipan and ALL awesome.

To cut a short-to-medium length story even shorter, we wanted an Android cake with LED candles that we could blow out. So while we couldn’t bake or buy one, we could definitely build one. What follows is a photo-diary of an afternoon spent building an Arduino Android cake, while actual work mounted like tetris blocks in our inboxes.

1. It started with a sketch. 

circuit copy

2. And then some wiring through the night.

James arduino build

3. The Arduino body – The ‘candles’ are in place.

2013-11-06 14.10.56 copy

4. Bringing the Android to life.

2013-11-06 14.22.02 copy

5. No fingers were harmed in the making of this cake (warning: no gore).

2013-11-06 14.45.16

6. Behold our Marzipandroid! 

2013-11-06 14.52.45

7. Painting the body (We were roundly criticized for this approach. The ‘bakers’ told us we should have rolled it in – but the Android cake builder perseveres through all criticism). 

Samuel colouring

8. The eyes are the windows to the soul.

2013-11-06 15.06.35 copy

9. Dr. Frankenstein assembles his green creation.

james copy

10. The finishing touches.

2013-11-06 15.14.47 copy

11. Testing the blowing mechanism. 

Samuel excited copy

12. The finished cake! (Candles all ablaze)

Android cake final final copy

13. We asked our lovely friend Laura (from music start-up Mixlr) to be our official tester…

14. Success! – Putting a new spin on what we usually mean when we say ‘Android development’.

Thanks to everyone who helped us reach to reach 5 Million downloads! To join the world’s biggest cell phone coverage crowdsourcing project, download the app from the header above.

To receive more posts like this (though usually with fewer cakes) sign up for our occasional newsletter.

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A glance at the Ofcom infrastructure report

Last week Ofcom put out a report on the state of communications infrastructure in the United Kingdom. From a wireless networks perspective the report unsurprisingly emphasised the spread of 4G LTE as the most significant development in the UK communications landscape. Two particularly interesting case studies revolved around looking at EE’s 4G network. The first looked at how 4G could be used to supply high speed broadband Internet to rural areas without a fixed line service (an interesting study especially considering the potential 4G has for transforming internet provision in less-developed economies). The second looked at how 4G is changing the profile of mobile user behaviour (chiefly video streaming).

Interestingly Ofcom seem to be increasingly keen to get away from a top-down perspective on mobile network performance. This emphasis on how customers actually experience the networks is one that was a logical avenue for Ofcom to pursue and reflects the fact that the layered nature of service provision makes it hard to judge performance based entirely on looking at the supply side. More research is needed to determine how important the various network functions are to consumers, as this will help make the provision of mobile networks more efficient at providing a service that actually works in a way that will best satisfy consumers.

The rural areas study says ‘it is likely that mobile solutions will be necessary to provide superfast broadband to parts of the final 10% which are hardest to reach with fixed broadband solutions’. The 4G trial took place in the Northern Fells in Cumbria, an area of relatively poor fixed line coverage. According to trialists the 4G service transformed their internet use, showing the real potential for wireless networks to fully replace fixed-line in the future, especially at the speeds associated with 4G. There were, however, a few surprising obstacles that make using cellular network more of a challenge than anticipated, with the most interesting one being the nature of rural building construction – the thick stone walls of Cumbria caused a high level of propagation loss.  The EE user study observed that video streaming (predominantly an evening activity) meant that people were less likely to turn over to Wi-Fi and to remain on 4G.

There were some interesting stats on public Wi-Fi networks, and their increased role in complementing existing 3G and 4G provision. 4 The data Ofcom gathered from their sample of operators shows that 1,991,268 GB of data was downloaded and uploaded on public Wi-Fi hotspots in June 2013. The significant growth of 188% in data usage could be ascribed, the report suggests, to the increase in number of public Wi-Fi hotspots (hotspots increased by 114%73). However, the average data consumed per hotspot in June has also increased by 26% compared to June 2012 from 48MB to 58MB. What this shows is that 4G, while potentially bringing broadband to new areas, will not replace fixed line internet entirely. Operators manage around 34,000 UK hotspots, which doesn’t include BT who operate around 5 million and have deals with several networks. The geographical dispersion of hotspots is shown on the map below.

Geographical distribution of Public Wi-Fi hotspots (hotspots per 1000 premises)

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 18.37.44

Source – Ofcom Infrastructure report

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Solar Interference: the cause of dropped calls?

Dropped calls are a major problem for cell phone users. An in-app survey we carried out 6 months ago showed that half of US cell phone users reported dropped calls as a problem with their mobile network. Many a mobile phone user has been prompted to turn their eyes to the sky and curse their cell phone provider as their conversation is prematurely curtailed by some quirk in the cellular signal. However, it may not necessarily be your provider that is to blame. New research by scientists at the University of Hawaii has shown a possible extra-terrestrial cause for these earthly frustrations.

The study, published this week in Nature Physics, shows a causal link between solar storms and dropped calls. Solar storms produce bursts of radio waves which can interfere with the radio networks used to provide cell phone service. The finding is especially interesting because it’s the first time that the link between solar storms and solar radio bursts has actually been proved. Peter Gallagher, who led the team from Ireland, said ““What we have found is fascinating – a real insight into how solar radio bursts are created.” Gallagher went on to discuss the methodology of their experiment “Using antennas in radio-quiet locations in Ireland combined with methods of 3-D imaging from spacecraft orbiting the sun, we have identified a missing link between solar storms and radio bursts.” So next time you’re blaming your network provider for a dropped call, give a thought to the possibility of celestial interference. While it may seem amazing that events on the surface of the sun can have such an impact on our day-to-day lives, dropped calls could be the least of our worries. The potential impact of a major solar storm on our always-connected world could be even more serious.

Sun cell phone

The reason for dropped calls?

The most significant Solar Storm in history occurred in 1859, and is referred to as the ‘Carrington Event’ – named after the amateur astronomer who identified it. The Storm was so powerful that it set fire to Telegraph wires and produced aurorae that were so bright that miners in Colorado began making breakfast at 1 am, having been awoken by the event and thinking it was morning. A study carried out by Lloyds Insurance and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research agency suggested that the economic impact of such an event, if it occurred today, would be around $2.6 trillion. I imagine it would be something like a Global Goldeneye, a pretty horrifying thought. On reflection then, it’s probably better just to blame your service provider rather than thinking about the potential horrors the sun could be about to inflict upon us.  As you can tell, I like to end these blog posts on a light and cheery note.

Photo by Rona Proudfoot on flickr (creative commons).

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How do the ‘Big 4’ compare for LTE in the biggest US cities?

T-Mobile CEO John Legere unveiled plans yesterday to abolish roaming charges for US users. This is fantastic news for consumers (and something that has needed to come for a while) and shows that Legere isn’t running out of exciting ideas as he enters the second year of his tenure as T-Mobile CEO. While that announcement will naturally grab the headlines but it is also worth noting that Legere heavily emphasised the growth of T-Mobile’s LTE network in his speech. His main point of emphasis was that T-Mobile’s LTE network can now be considered truly nation-wide in the US, with a reach of over 200 million consumers.

Considering that the T-Mobile LTE network was only rolled out this year, that kind of reach is an impressive achievement – but doesn’t actually tell us anything about how the network performs in comparison with the competition.  For this reason we decided to run an analysis on our data to see how AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon performed in the 10 biggest US cities by population. The results were interesting, and showed that T-Mobile is already performing excellently in the big urban centres. Sprint, who have the least well developed LTE network of the ‘big 4’ national networks, do comparatively poorly. In the Table below we show the average LTE download speeds for the 10 cities we investigated, and then declared one network to be the best performing – based on a combination of overall coverage, download speed, upload speed and latency.

How the LTE Networks Perform

City Avg. Download Speed Best Network
New York 6.7 Mbps T-Mobile
Los Angeles 7.5 Mbps AT&T
Chicago 6.6 Mbps AT&T
Houston 7.3 Mbps T-Mobile
Philadelphia 5.5 Mbps Verizon
Phoenix 9.7 Mbps T-Mobile
Dallas 8.6 Mbps T-Mobile
San Diego 9.6 Mbps T-Mobile
San Jose 10.8 Mbps T-Mobile
San Antonio 6.6 Mbps Verizon

As can be seen, T-Mobile perform extremely well, ranked as the top network ins 6 of the 10 biggest US cities.  However much John Legere implements innovative strategies to attract users to T-Mobile, the most important thing remains actual network performance and it is clear that T-Mobile are doing very well in this regard. While these average speeds may seem on the low side, especially for a technology capable of delivering much faster speeds than 3G, they are generally in line with our US-wide 4G average LTE speed of 9.6 Mbps, which we recorded in February this year. In many of these cities, one network’s poor performance lowers the overall average considerably, with Sprint the worst performing LTE network in 9 of the 10 markets we tested. The fastest average LTE network speed we recorded in this test was T-Mobile in San Jose, with an impressive 21.23 Mbps average speed. So far, so good for John Legere’s ‘uncarrier’.

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PotterMad: Harry Potter Themed WiFi Names

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. J.K. Rowling has announced that she is writing the screenplay for a film based, in its entirety, on ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’. For those who are not familiar with it, FBaWtFT is a slender tome describing the various fauna of the magical world of Harry Potter. The book itself is a simple bestiary, a list of magical monstrosities. It has no narrative structure, no plot and no dramatis personae (how could there be, without a drama to person in?). Perhaps the plot will focus, as has been suggested, on the enumerative journey of ‘Newt Scamander’, the book’s fictitious and enigmatic author. One can but speculate. Needless to say, this news tapped into a long-abandoned well of Potter-excitement deep within me. The consequences were serious, the waters of Potter-mania now rush excitedly towards the surface, flooding into this blog like a sharp cold spring into heavy autumn air.

In case I haven’t been clear, what I am trying to say is that I decided to look through our database of over 120 million Wi-Fi names to see if I could uncover some Harry Potter-related gems. And, as usual, the Wi-Fi naming public did not disappoint.  Here are a few of my particular favourites:

1) SexyDumbledore

Correct. He is sexy. No further questions.

2) 74pointstoHufflepuff

Why 74? Actually wait, scratch that question. Why HUFFLEPUFF? And yeah, yeah, I hear you, stop harping on about Cedric Diggory.  What did Diggory ever actually do anyway? Let’s think… he went out with Cho Chang and, yep, died. Top Hufflepuff legacy there.

3) DobbyisaFreeElf

Imagine having that as your Wi-Fi name. Imagine coming home, opening your laptop and seeing ‘you are now connected to DobbyisaFreeElf’ EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The mind boggles, but then again it is a pretty significant moment in the complex human-exceptionalism allegory that Rowling weaves throughout her work, so perhaps we can forgive it. Acutally, you know what, I’m coming round to it – let’s scream it from the rooftops – HEAR THAT EVERYBODY? DOBBY IS A FREE ELF.  Sock-driven emancipation, that’s the dream Martin Luther King was talking about.

Ahem, anyway. The ‘which house would you have been in’ game is always entertaining, and it’s refreshing to see that not everyone automatically puts themself in Gryffindor. Good work everyone! If you’re interested, the OpenSignal team is comprised of two Slytherins, two Gryffindors and one Ravenclaw  – and before you ask, I’m one of the Slytherins. Without further ado (or any kind of song) here’s where the sorting hat of global Wi-Fi names has placed people:

Gryffindor – 36

Ravenclaw – 14

Slytherin – 11

Hufflepuff – 8

So, no surprises there, Gryffindor come out comfortable victors. For comparison there are 130 Wi-Fi networks called ‘Hogwarts’, demonstrating the spirit of togetherness and inclusivity which Dumbledore seemed to call for in every speech he ever gave.  It’s also sweet that 8 people have self-sorted into Hufflepuff, that’s definitely a sign they belong there.

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Which is the second most popular operating system in Latin America?

Ok – we’ve got a question for you. What’s the second most popular operating system in Latin America? As the roulette wheel of your brain spins between iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone and (maybe?) Symbian, we’ll go and make a cup of tea. Ok, finished? We’ll tell you. A new report by IDC shows that the second most popular operating system in Latin America is (drumroll) Windows Phone.

The report shows that Windows Phone has been ranked second in Mexico for the second consecutive quarter, and for the second quarter of 2013 it also ranked second in both Colombia and Peru. In other countries (including Argentina, Chile and Brazil) it climbed to third. Interestingly, Microsoft emphasise the availability of their low-end devices as being a major factor in their success in LatAm, something which Apple will certainly be making note of.

A rising power?

A rising power?

 

In fact this is probably the best explanation for how Windows Phone have managed to be so successful. The lack of a cheap iOS device puts them a strong disadvantage in less mature markets and Blackberry’s once-dominant position in Latin America has been in near free-fall in recent times (a trend admittedly not unique to LatAm). So what this doesn’t mean is that Windows Phone is poised to become the second most dominant ecosystem in Europe and the US. It is, however, a good sign that Windows Phone is solidifying its position as the third choice operating system (again, see the decline of Blackberry) – and has the potential to be a real rival to Android in developing markets.

Everyone who’s been calling for us to build a Windows Phone app can be feeling pretty smug at this news. It’s definitely something we’re interested in doing, but probably won’t be happening all that soon. Feel free to keep bullying us about it on twitter though!

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Android Fragmentation: why it matters (and also doesn’t)

It has been almost a month since we published our report on Android Fragmentation – and the responses to it have been almost overwhelming. The report was liked 4,000 times on Facebook, generated almost 3,500 tweets and was given great coverage by both tech and mainstream press. We suspected while we were writing it that we were about to re-ignite the embers of a fanboy flame-war, but we weren’t quite anticipating how hot that fire would burn (see the comments on the Verge article).  Possibly our favourite response came from Tech Hive, who waited for everything to calm down before issuing a gif-laden article telling everyone to shut up about fragmentation (which of course only succeeded getting everyone riled up again, great job guys!).

So who is right? Is Android fragmentation a strength or a weakness? Does anyone care? Why am I still writing about this? These are the questions I want to quickly address by building upon the points I wrote about in the conclusion to the report – namely, that cheap Android devices (the lower-end of the fragmentation spectrum) are going to be the hardware which enables greater global internet access.

Both Google, with Project Loon, and Facebook, with internet.org, have been active recently in putting global Internet access on the public agenda. This fits in with the slowly swirling rhetoric about whether Internet access should be considered a human right (or perhaps as a crucial support for existing rights), which is far too weighty a subject for this immediate blog post. The fact remains that there are some 4 billion people without Internet access and therefore without the economic and social benefits it brings. Both Google and Facebook have (wrongly, in my opinion) come under criticism for these projects – with the line of argument seeming to run (and I admit that this is a slight simplification) that their concern with shareholder profits prevents them from doing anything good. This line of argument seems to miss the point that companies acting in their own self-interest is the driving force of capitalism, and has brought almost unimaginable technological and social advancement. The idea that individuals’ and corporations’ own negative self-interest drives general improvement is capitalism, and is one of the central observations of Bernard Mandeville, a great influencer of Adam Smith. It is as true today as it was then.

Discernable in this maelstrom of discussions about rights, the role of the corporation in capitalism and the nature of altruism – is a general move towards innovative, mobile-based, solutions to the problem of the disconnected 4 billion. However, providing internet access (either fixed line or cellular) necessitates computing devices to make use of it. This is where a fragmented Android ecosystem comes in – enabling consumers that cannot afford high-end devices (see our previous analysis of the special significance of the mobile phone in Africa). So amongst all the consumer fury of the ecosystem war – an answer to the question ‘does it all really matter?’ arises: No, honestly, it doesn’t. Not in the developed world. Both ecosystems have their strengths and weaknesses and both fill niches in a mature market. Both have great apps, and a wide variety of them to choose from. When you look at the bigger picture, however, Android fragmentation looks like an immensely important technological trend – with the potential to provide the computing power for a new generation of Internet users. All that’s required now is someone, Google, Facebook or otherwise, to step in and provide the infrastructure.

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Android Phones with Ambient Air Temperature Sensors

We recently published our findings on how outdoor air temperature can be extracted from readings of battery temperature, but we’re also excited by the growing number of phones with thermometers designed to directly measure the temperature outside the phone (rather than in the battery). Based on the data we’re collecting through our weather crowdsourcing app, WeatherSignal, we’ve put together a quick list of phones with air temperature sensors.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and the S4 Active

The S4 is the phone that has brought a dedicated temperature sensor to the masses. While it is not the first phone to contain a thermometer, it is the the first internationally available device to do so. I’m not going to write much about the sensors in the S4 because we all know they’re awesome, but unfortunately not cheap.

Anything from the Arrows line:

These were among the first phones to use the Sensirion SHTC1 (the same chip in the S4). The devices are high spec, but they’re probably not going to be that much use to you unless you have a working knowledge of Japanese. Incidentally these devices have some crazy names that give you the story of the entire supply chain, just one example:
Docomo Fujitsu Arrows V Nvidia Tegra 3 Phone
For more wacky phone names, check out The 10 strangest named Android devices.

Several devices by Xiaomi

In Argentina, phones are generally extremely expensive because of the high import duties placed on them. These duties can easily increase the price of a phone to over 50% more than in the US. Some of the more savvy get round this by ordering individual phones direct from China and declaring the value incorrectly. While we do not advocate this,  it does mean that you see some models in Argentina that you might not see else where. During my last trip  I got to have a quick play with a Xiaomi and was extremely impressed, the build quality was good and the phone seemed very zippy. And that was before I knew that many of the Xiaomi devices are rocking thermometers. Check out the MI 2 and MI 2S, in addition the default MIUI is pretty nice and supports many languages.

The Snopow M6 - possibly indestructible

The Snopow M6 – a mobile tough guy

Snopow M6

Waterproof, anti-shock, thermometer … all for $250. This looks tasty, but we’ve never actually tried one, if you have let us know whether it really is as good as it sounds. Find it here. In particular we don’t know if the temperature readings are available through the Android APIs, they should be, but as we have no instances of this phone in our database we can’t be sure. If you have one, download WeatherSignal, and then shoot us an email via the contact form.

Casio Gz1 Commando (aka G’zOne Commando)

The name of this phone gives you a good idea of what it’s all about, it’s a rugged gadget, rather like the Snopow. One of the first phones with a thermometer in the US, this is the sort of phone I would have wanted when I was 5, except phones didn’t have thermometers then and I wouldn’t have been allowed one even if they did.

Posted in Sensors, WeatherSignal | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment