A few days ago, Apple updated its iMac line up with Hasswell processors. In addition, they included better GPU and next generation Wifi 802.11ac to iMacs. What’s the news for me? Sitting in India itself is a news these days. We bought our first Apple product about a year ago in the form of iMac at ₹64900. Since then, Apple refreshed/upgraded iMacs exactly twice and increased $100 in the US. How is that translating to Indian buyers? ₹99900 is the starting price! I was shocked just as anyone else. But later on dug deeper about the matter.
As per last union budget 2013-14, every mobile phone more than ₹2000 is considered to be luxurious and hence will be taxed more! Most consumer electronics like TV and computers got costlier. More recently, government wanted to curb imports as our great currency Rupee had a freefall and therefore all electronics displays to attract 36% duty for even personal purchases abroad and bringing to India. Couple more things I noticed was, computer and consumer electronics have attracted increased duty for last couple of years! So only falling rupee showed common people that products are really getting priced out of reach.
What our government is doing with the increased cash inflow? It is going to spend on food bills, giving away subsidised mobile phones and tablets to so called underprivileged people. The problems do not stop here. We have a population of 1300 millions and we all need foreign income because of some inevitable imports. Let us assume a few ambitious folks want to start a business in consumer electronics? Unbearable inventory costs plus unlimited redtapism. If an IT professional gets fired and wants to start something in IT, it may cost him one year’s living cost to just buy a computer! RBI said, no more interest free EMIs, that means lesser incentive to buy. Put it other way, people will postpone more purchases translating to lesser turnover at the industry level. Instead of taking measures to improve economic activity we are going other way round. Who will be affected? So called middle class income. Having a below poverty ration card enables people to make a living from government itself. Rich people would have made some non cash assets most of which could appreciate in value. But for people with mid range income will have to face modern India phenomenon of increased cost of living, and reduced opportunities!

Ever since Agawi TouchMarks revealed the screen latency test results, a few of the android fans seem to question the methodology itself. From the TouchMark’s blog, “…our latency experts are using their knowledge to introduce the first quantitative and objective benchmark of app response times: TouchMarks. By introducing TouchMarks to the market, we hope to bring more rigour to discussions around touchscreen response times, device lag, streaming latency and other topics related to how responsive an application feels on a mobile device”. Throughout this article, I have mentioned content straight from the iOS devices seem to fare really well in touch responses and hence most users seem to like the interaction with iPhone, iPad, etc. Below graph vindicates the same.

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In addition, Microsoft Research visually (as well as technically) shows us if such issue exist and does it affect any touch device user at all.

These days, people do not believe such results as fanboy element creeps in to most results. Let us see from the comments section of TouchMarks website itself, if there are any valuable points.  First comment from @craigsg said “No one should confuse you for scientists. You have an agenda and preconceived notions” But this reply was quite interesting from @Ian “@craigsj . With regard to perceived latency, we are working on an app where accurate timing is critical to the proper functioning of the app. On iOS we have it working great, on android we are contending with high audio latency + high touch latency. It virtually makes the app not doable on android, without some fairly hacky latency subtractions. We need to be able to measure a touch to within 200ms of an audible cue. With audio latency of 100-400ms and touch latency of >100ms you can see the problem.”

People are good at finding problems in every outcome, I was obviously surprised to hear a comment wherein, the question was about non-selection of stock Android devices. Moreover, visitors felt that, TouchMarks is positively biased towards Apple. @Rohan’s reply was interesting, “Hi Adam, We picked flagship phones from each manufacturer that we had available to us- unfortunately we didn’t have a Nexus 4. The Moto X is pretty close to a stock Android experience though (and it’s actually my personal phone, contrary to most people’s belief I’m an iPhone user now). We did kill the background processes, but didn’t put the phone into airplane mode. It’s an interesting theory though, I’ll test it on a few devices and see if there’s a difference”. People love their devices is not a problem, world is never flat and each individual has different choices and tastes. I would never bother to comment on them. I have been loving Apple devices not because I am a fan of the company, but the products seem to work well every time as per my expectations that includes feel of experience which could vary. I like snappy fluid scrolls but that itself is relative. These researches try to convert subjective remarks to numbers and I am happy to see the effort put by TouchMarks. I guess following remarks best conclude the whole thing:

@Ritesh “Almost all high end Android phones since 2012 have the touch layer fused with the glass. That includes all the Android phones in this test and many more like the One X, GS3, LG OG, Nexus 4 from 2012. You’re probably talking about cheaper/older Android phones. LG and Samsung make the displays/touchscreens for Apple, so it’d be really odd if their own devices didn’t use the same. Hardware is not the issue here. Software is.

I’m an Android user and also an audio engineer+producer. I know first hand how bad latency on Android is. It does not affect daily usage but it definitely sticks out like a thorn when it comes to realtime apps such as midi controllers and synths. For audio apps, I use LivKontrol and TouchDAW on a Nexus 10 and LivKontrol and TouchOSC on an iPad 3. The difference in response is pretty noticeable.

Having said that, Android is getting a lot of work done in the audio latency department and the next version will have major improvements with an option for a realtime kernel. Once that arrives, I’m sure Agawi would do the tests again.”

Apple is expected to roll out its ground-up redesigned iOS 7 to public in coming weeks. iOS 7 (beta version so far) has advanced multi-tasking feature to help apps scheduled for running in the background. On the eve of Apple keynote event on 10 September 2013, let us refresh our understanding of apps running in the background especially in Android and iOS. Let us do it through answering a few basic questions: What is meant by Apps running in the background? How do apps running in the background affect the user? Are there any user controls available? What is that developer community doing about it?

Apps running in the background

This means, an app that keeps working when the user is not directly interacting with it. Let us assume, on an Android phone, a user has exited Facebook app by closing it through ‘Task’ button or simply hit ‘Home’ button. Go to Settings – Apps – Running, you will find if the app is running in background.

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I should provide a clarification here about RAM usage in an android device. Let us say your phone has 2GB memory, of which 800MB is being consumed by apps running in the background. If you would like to play a new game, the OS has an ability to release memory from background processes for you to play your game. I found a couple of decent explanations as to why you should not use task killer on an android device as well. There are two ways in which apps run in background – Intents and Services. An app that provides Intents does not actually run on the background. Apps that run as Service do consume processor, memory, battery as well as data. For example, if an Application has to get a push notification, that can be achieved through GCM without requiring anything to run in background as service. However, Google does not make it mandatory to use GCM and hence developers use various third party push notification providers. Third party APIs use background services to receive push notifications with an ordinary reasoning of making the apps work on non-Google Android devices. However, the real intention to develop an app that runs as Service is to have access to nearly everything that happens on the device – system tools, other apps, camera, location info, network information, social information, calls and text info, and so on and so forth.

Consequences of apps running in the background

First and foremost issue is security! Most users are not aware which info is gathered by the developer and what the developer does with it. It is important to note how iOS handles operating system security. iOS has a rule that requires apps to get user confirmation for accessing any inter-app or device stored information. Apple has strict guidelines that are adhered to with respect to apps that can run on background as well. To elaborate, if you install Snapseed on iPad and start using it, you get a chance to re-confirm whether the app can access your photo library. On the other hand, android app would have had the permission requested for, during installation itself, which millions of users ignore or have no control over. You can refer to my earlier article to get more information on adversaries of apps running in background.

User controls

If you are using any handheld device, you have no realistic control over the processes that run on the background. On android you can stop apps running as services or processes, however they automatically get their default settings as and when you restart your phone. Android is not controlled and there is nothing called ‘App Review’ from the OS provider which poses threat to the users. The video below explains how you can disable apps running on background in Nexus 4 running Android 4.3.

Users first?

Unfortunately not all developers for OS and apps put user experience, data security and device durability as primary goal. So far iOS policies regarding which apps can run in background have helped users, and I am happy to put them together as under:

  • Apps that play audible content to the user while in the background, such as a music player app
  • Apps that keep users informed of their location at all times, such as a navigation app
  • Apps that support Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
  • Newsstand apps that need to download and process new content
  • Apps that receive regular updates from external accessories

Apple devices and OSes have historically been referred as ‘jail’ and hence people call ‘jailbreaking’ when users try to leave Apple’s official support to have root access of the OS. Google makes money through mobile ad impressions and hence they have an Android formula that can simply reach more hands.

The biggest question mark on Android is about security and I got a chance to dig deeper into it through an app called AirDroid. The app is supposed to help users to connect with their device over the web, eliminating cable connection. I was curious about the permission settings and also wanted to know to what extent the app can take control of the device. Unlike any other app I used so far, AirDroid has the longest list of App Permission requests. I have provided screens which exactly tell us all the App Permissions requested, unfortunately not many actually read them all! I would like to make it clear that, I have nothing against the app or the people behind it. The app has been there long enough and enough people love to use it. Rather I am looking to throw some light on how people give control of their private information unknowingly.

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Ability to share is easier in Android than iOS, but the problem is, sharing cannot be controlled step by step. If you want to use facebook or snapseed on iOS, by default photos are not permitted to be accessed by apps. Steve Jobs insisted about customer privacy in one of his AllThingsD appearances. Apple continues to let the world know about their intent with regards to Commitment to Customer Privacy on their website homepage while in Android open world anyone can do almost anything! When I launched the App for the first time, it showed up some usual introduction screens after which I chose not to sign up for anything but started with the app.

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First surprise came when it showed the name of the Wi-fi my phone connected on. The ‘Device’ link showed everything that was running on on the phone. So this app can help you release memory and stuff like that (if you really believe in freeing up memory manually. Moreover this app could uninstall any of the existing apps on your device as well. I was stunned when this app could access all your phone settings in one tap. I went back to the app settings to realise, the app was designed to take complete control of the phone and only one mundane permission request during the installation. This app runs in the background as a service and hence it is prone to eating up your data and burning battery even when the phone is not in active utilisation.

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As I write this, AirDroid has exactly 115,061 five star ratings with nearly 10 million installations. As I mentioned previously, this could arguably one of the most successful apps on Android. Even if people want to share their all app data, call logs and stuff like that, why do we have no system to ask ’em every time. People love open system with a claim of it being easy to customise according to ones needs and tastes. However, smartphones are the most vital computing devices with lots of personal data in it. Google has already told to the world that, ‘If you use Gmail you have no expectation of privacy‘. So the following questions remain on the most platform that powers approximately 80% smartphones on the planet:

  • Why neither Google nor smartphone manufacturer do not bother customer security?
  • When someone pays as much as $600 for a smartphone can he not expect a bear minimum security standards from the device?
  • Why is there a notion that, only viruses can harm the user when so much personal data is getting shared across apps, without user’s knowledge?