Saturday, 18 October 2008

Google Android has a kill switch too

Google has taken a leaf out of Steve Jobs' iPhone and included a remote kill-switch in its Android operating system that runs its own

G1 mobile phone. Using the kill-switch, Google can remove any application from Android handsets that the search engine giant finds violating its terms and conditions.

The fact came to light on Friday as some tech bloggers picked 'the little devil' in the fine print of Android Market's terms of service while reviewing the handsets provided by Google and T-Mobile for media previews. In contrast, Apple had not even mentioned anything about such a switch.

While iPhone sells exclusively with AT&T in the US, Google has chosen to launch G1 exclusively with T-Mobile in the home market. G1 is the first mobile phone to run on Android and will start retailing from next week. Android Market is an online store akin to iPhone's Apps Store that the user can access from the phone to download applications.

The revelation has led to Google's critics castigating the company for "finally shown its evil fangs", an allusion to Google's much touted 'no evil' policies. Some have even gone ahead and said that suddenly Microsoft looks like the good guy in comparison!

The last bit is a reference to phones running on Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS where the company does not have any control over which apps its users port on their devices. Even Research in Motion does not have such a remote kill-switch despite having a very high degree of dependency for security, encryption and compression of traffic that flows on the popular Blackberry devices.

The sudden discovery in the fine print has caused a mini furor in the tech reviewers' community which had earlier lambasted Apple for hiding the feature from iPhone buyers. But then, Apple had been completely silent about it whereas Google has merely been less candid about it, perhaps fearing negative repercussions of being vociferous about the feature.

"Google may discover a product that violates the developer distribution agreement. In such an instance, Google retains the right to remotely remove those applications from your device at its sole discretion," read Android Market's terms of service.

However, Google may escape with its move being hailed as positive by some users since the company has promised that if it does ever have to pull back a programme from the customers' handset, it will make "reasonable efforts" to ensure they get a refund of the price paid to the developer of the application by the customer. Apple does not make any such promise.

Unlike Apple, which has vetted each application before putting it on Apps Store, Google has neither arrived at a pricing formula for the apps yet, nor any screening mechanism before adding them on the Android Market platform. Hence, such a remote kill-switch may be necessitated in G1 more than in iPhone, but then Google too should have declared it at the time of unveiling, point out critics.

Yet, the fact remains that even Apple has had to blacklist some of its apps. More significantly, the remote kill-switch is likely to be used by Google only in case of rogue applications distributed through Android Market. But unlike iPhone, G1 users will not be bound to buying apps from Android Market alone, but can buy apps from any developer's website directly.

Interestingly, in another sign of Google wanting to target potential iPhone buyers, Android Market apps can be tried for returned within 24 hours for a full refund in case the user does not like them. Again, Apple's Apps Store does not give any such choice to its user.

However, while this move may find a lot of appeal for the potential buyers of G1, it may spell bad news for third party developers who would run the risk of refunds in case of a pullback making their business case weaker.

Besides, the very presence of the company having an option of a remote kill-switch is something some users of Apple iPhone do not like as they deem it an intrusion in their privacy. Since Android is touted as open source-based 'open' phone, it is not likely to be appreciated by this section of users all the more.

At one level, the remote kill-switch may be a necessity for both Apple and Google to protect themselves. Both the companies are relatively new entrants on the mobile phone turf and have several established companies as competition. Both may have some unseen enemies who would love to see media agog with reports about malware, stolen identities or copyright violation lawsuits.

But what makes the scenario somewhat uncertain for G1 is that in case Android Market is misused by rogue or over-enthusiastic developers for setting out malicious codes, indulging in privacy misuse or copyright violations, Google will be required to intervene and use the kill-switch from time to time.

And that is very unlikely to go down well with the potential buyers, making them uncomfortable with the thought of the company intruding into their handsets. But in the longer run and in light of the rising safety and privacy concerns - which are only bound to grow with devices like iPhone and G1 – such mechanisms could eventually make the usage of smart phones a whole lot safer for buyers.