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Apple and Google are working together on a major effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, which uses people’s phone signals to notify them if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.
The joint project takes advantage of two of the world’s most popular operating systems – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android – to potentially reach billions of people. The tools will use Bluetooth radio technology to support applications that will be developed by public health authorities. Google and Apple will initially start releasing updates in May, the tech giants said in a joint briefing on Monday.
The two companies plan to integrate the tracking function into their mobile operating systems, using applications that public health authorities are deploying. Once it’s part of the operating system, tracking could be even easier, but it will require people to update their phone software, an issue that strikes the industry. A software tool, after all, is only as effective as the number of people who can access it.
It is notoriously difficult to release updates for Android. Indeed, Android runs on devices made by a variety of manufacturers, who must test the updates to make sure they work. The cumbersome process has led to a challenge known as “fragmentation”, with Android users running different versions of the operating system that have varying capacities. Apple’s update process is much simpler, but even the iPhone maker doesn’t have 100% of its users on the latest version of iOS.
For Google, the update will not be like a normal operating system upgrade. Rather, it will go through a set of tools called Google Play Services, which allows Android to work around certain fragmentation issues by pushing updates directly, without the approval of the device and wireless partners. The company normally uses Google Play services to update its own apps, like Gmail and Maps, and push the changes like a new app icon. Contact tracking tools will be available for phones running software as old as Android Marshmallow, the version of the operating system launched in 2015.
It will probably be easier for Apple to deploy an iOS update for all of its users at the same time as for Google. Since Apple controls hardware, software, and services on iPhones, it is able to ensure that the updates work on its new devices and deploy them on all devices at once.
Apple is still looking to get the update on as many devices as possible, company officials said on Monday, but adoption of its software versions is faster than on Android.
Apple generally unveils a new version of its iOS software in June at its developer conference and finally releases the full version to iPhone users in the fall. Whenever it presents a new variant of its software, the majority of iPhone users download it within a few weeks.
The largest mobile operating systems
At the end of January, 77% of iPhones were using the most recent version of Apple’s operating system, iOS 13. Although Google has not released user figures for the latest version of its software, Android 10, users have been slow to download previous generations. The last time Google updated its distribution numbers in May 2019, Android 9 was installed on only 10.4% of Android phones. The three versions released before that accounted for 64.4% of Android phones.
Android is the world’s largest smartphone operating system, with 87% of all phones using Google software in 2019 and only 13% using iOS, according to IDC. In the United States, however, the Apple iPhone accounts for a larger percentage of the overall phone market, accounting for about 40% of all phones shipped, according to Counterpoint Research. During the December 2019 quarter, the first full period with the latest iPhones, about half of all smartphones shipped to the United States were iPhones, the firm said.
When it comes to contact tracking tools, the ability for a large portion of the population to access them is much more important than with other normal application updates. As more and more countries explore applications to track contracts and contain the COVID-19 epidemic, privacy and civil liberties advocates warn that the use of technology will create disparity in people counted when governments make public health decisions.
On April 8, the American Civil Liberties Union released a white paper warning that people in poor communities may not have access to the latest Android or iOS device, noting that people who need contact tracing notifications the most of the COVID-19 positive cases most may not have access to it.
In testimony to the Senate Trade Commission on April 9, the Future of Privacy Forum’s lead counsel, Stacey Gray, noted that some devices are more widely used by younger and wealthier communities, which means that “the seniors, the very young and the poorest “would be excluded from what Apple and Google are trying to build.