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Apps are evil, data hungry monsters

New research shows apparently harmless mobile apps are using your data allowance and costing some users thousands of dollars in unexpected bills.

There was a time when all we had were software programs – they were paid (like MS Office), share/trial ware (try before you buy) or freeware (free). They were usually “client” based (run on Windows, Mac or Linux PC’s) or server based (with a networked client interface). You usually received the software on disc or downloaded and installed it.

Computing as most of us know it was based around running software on a physical device and the complexity of the task dictated the amount of CPU power and memory you needed hence the mad scramble to stretch Moore’s Law (CPU performance doubles every 18-24 months) by building faster, cheaper and better chips using more and more memory. Almost all software would run on x86 standard PC’s (with recompiled variants for Linux, Windows and later Mac) which gave developers good economies of scale.

As the internet took hold in the late 90’s we started to see “cloud” based programs (server-side) which essentially allowed you to run programs through remote desktops (RDP, terminal services, Citrix) or web browsers (Microsoft ASP.net, Oracle Java or PHP). The cloud meant low cost PC’s (and much later tablets and smart phones) could, provided they had an internet connection that was fast enough, do “things”.

But more cloud commitment then was held back by horribly expensive and slow internet. Internet costs and coverage are today nowhere near what they need to be (free and ubiquitous) but broadband via cable, ADSL and wireless 3/4G won’t break the bank any more.

Which brings me to App’s (an abbreviation and file extension .app for application made popular by Apple’s use i.e. Appstore and possibly encouraged as slang by App..le).

Apps are not programs. They are usually low cost, single purpose, tools that much of the time, rely on using expensive data. For example a weather App uses location data and internet access to tell you the weather. It not so harmlessly sits in the background drip feeding the live “tile” whilst quietly using your internet allowance. Virgin Media Business UK estimated in 2011 that smartphones on average use 10.7MB per hour just being switched on (that’s  91.5 GB per year) - and guess who gets a percentage of all that you pay for the privilege – App…le of course (and I am sure Google et all are in the game).

App developers (and that’s a polite term for many who produce “packet cake mix” apps) are encouraged at every opportunity ranging from their vendor supplied Software Development Kits to sponsored training sessions to generously incorporate into their apps the use of data and the smart phone’s various sensors like accelerometers, GPS, light, proximity, compass, gyro and near field communications. Ergo many apps won’t run if you don’t have a data connection (think Facebook for example).

According to Engadget it has become a real problem for app happy campers who can easily exceed the 1-2GB or so included in most Telco packages (they report Android users chew an average of 870MB of data per month with typical minimal App usage). iPhone users in particular without a USB connector often have to use expensive 3G/4G to get “stuff” onto the phone so discipline yourself to stick to Wi-Fi. 4G LTE can be much more voracious so iPhone 5 and other users beware.

Enter Onavo Count for iPhone and Android. It has become a very popular and necessary App to avoid the potential $2 per MB (that’s $2,048 per GB) data charges levied by some carriers. Frequent media stories decrying carriers for charging excess data led to many throttling back to 64-256kbps access and some reducing the excess data usage to 10 cents per MB (that’s still $102.40 per GB!) 

How much data do you use? According to Boston.com watching a typical You-Tube streaming video will chew 2MB a minute. A typical four minute streaming audio is also about 2MB (that includes internet radio). Navigation (GPS) consumes about 1MB per minute (mainly retrieving maps) although the navigation processing is done on the device. Web surfing is moderate use but depends on whether you access a graphically rich site. Facebook posts are light to moderate use but sending photos and viewing friend’s pictures will severely ramp up the calorie intake. Twitter is light unless you follow a lot of people and click on links. Email is light but if you send or receive say 100 emails a month with attachments (Word, PDF, Excel or photos) you will exceed your allowance. Remember that most mobile data plans charge for both downloads and uploads as well.

  The real gold mine of the future is in data – there is no money in hardware and the manufacturers and carriers know that – it is like giving a printer away to sell more expensive ink…


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!