Mobile apps have become the new internet, absorbing much of consumers' digital time. And like bees to honey, digital advertisers and cyber fraudsters are flocking to mobile – keen to peer into all that mobile technology can reveal about people's habits, movements, and personal ID. That's not putting off consumers (not yet, at least), who are increasingly glued to their mobile screens, turning digital consumption into something far more invasive and pervasive than ever before.
At its annual developer get-together last week, Google made a big play of what it called "Digital Wellbeing" – a series of initiatives to help consumers wean themselves off excessive mobile screen time, including "take a break" notifications on YouTube.
Google makes its money from advertising, and YouTube is one of its prime ad-publishing properties, so it seems counterintuitive that Google should want users to curtail their time on the video-sharing site.
The search giant spoke at Google I/O of the sense of "deep responsibility" it feels – the Android ecosystem it has spawned is one of two major gateways to the increasingly mobile-based digital world. But more to the point, with smartphone addiction now a hot topic of discussion, Google, and others like it, must fear a consumer and regulatory backlash if things are left unchecked.
Privacy concerns can fuel even bigger backlashes, and such concerns have been heightened like never before by the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, which opened consumers' eyes to how vulnerable their personal data is to the sinister machinations of faceless third parties. Added to this is the increasing threat of malware apps, for anything from ad fraud to stealing users' ID and payment details.
Advertisers are also increasingly the victims of fraud. A high proportion of the dollars spent on promoting apps are siphoned off into fake downloads, organic installs that are passed off as paid installs (through malware apps), or low-quality ad inventory billed as something dearer.
There is a lot of tidying up to do in the apps world. And none of the big stakeholders can say, hand on heart, they are doing enough to tackle the mess.
For Google, the task is particularly challenging – at least compared to its main rival, Apple. Unlike Apple, Google earns its living from advertising, so there is a limit to how far it's going to want to restrict the harnessing of user data. And unlike iOS, Android is an open source ecosystem that is highly fragmented and not easily controllable, making OS updates and accompanying security patches and privacy improvements slow to roll out, and hardware-supported security safeguards haphazard in nature.
Showing concern for the well-being of Android users is a start of sorts, but Google will need to make more significant changes if its good intentions are to be believed. True, things will have to get much uglier before users are driven to spend less time on their smartphones. But their loyalty to Android could certainly waver.
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