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Sunday November 11, 2012

What’s app in your life?

Smartphone apps are not only changing the way we play and relax, it is also changing the way we live. But there are hazards to be aware of.

SHE was born in the 80s, she still uses her phone as a phone!”

That line from her favourite sitcom Community struck a chord with lecturer Marina Ariffin, 29.

It's not the age, the 80s baby quickly explains, but rather the familiar censure in the statement.

Like Britta, the mature student character whose “outdated” phone habits caused panic among her younger classmates at the community college of the hit comedy show, Marina's phone etiquette has been a source of alarm for her smartphone-toting friends too.

“They just could not imagine how I could survive without all the applications that are helping them through life,” she shares with a laugh.

Marina finally caved in to pressure and now realises what she has been missing.

“Now I cannot imagine living without them either.”

The applications on her smartphone now help her decide what to wear and what to eat. Before she leaves for work, she will check the traffic updates to give her the smoothest and fastest journey on the road.

Best of all, she tells Sunday Star, she now feels closer to her friends.

“Previously, I was not even in the loop because I did not have WhatsApp. Now it is so easy to keep in touch with everyone. And sharing new applications that we have discovered has become a major bonding activity' when we meet,” she adds.

The rate at which Marina adapted to the “app lifestyle” is no surprise to many market watchers. According to global market research agency GfK, Malaysia is one of the markets with the deepest smartphone penetration in the region, second after Singapore where 88%, or nine out of every 10 in the general population, are reportedly a smartphone user. Malaysia's growth in the regional sector is recorded at 35%.

And at 29, Marina falls in the demographic of the main smartphone users in the country, those aged 20 to 34 years old.

Currently, there are more than 36.6 million mobile phone subscriptions in Malaysia (more than 120% compared to the number of population). When asked if they plan on buying smartphones in a survey by the Nielsen Company in 2011, 45% of Malaysian online customers said they would definitely or probably purchase a smartphone.

App mad

The Nielsen Company's Mobile Insights Survey estimates that iPhone users download an average of 48 apps onto their phones while Android phone users download an average of 35 apps.

As apps become an integral part of our lives today with their ability to perform specific daily tasks the phone has ceased to be merely a phone.

“It has definitely made life more convenient and interesting,” quips Marina.

Tech blogger Shaan Haider breaks it down succinctly: a mobile phone is now used to pass the time, as a source for quick information and to stay connected.

Making and receiving calls now fall below using apps, browsing the Internet and watching videos, among others, in the list of uses.

The smartphone is also used in conjunction with other “information dispensers”, Haider highlights, such as newspaper and book, video games, Internet and television.

Jay Lo*, 38, who works at a media and communication company cannot agree more.

His iPad and iPhone have in tandem totally changed the way he interacts with technology, he says.

“Before the two, the only conduit to the information superhighway was through a desktop PC or notebook. However, I would only turn the machine on at work, and hardly ever at home,” he says, sharing that it was mainly for work, the occasional game or two and some light reading usually football news.

“But now, with the instant-on nature and portability of these devices, I turn to these at almost every opportunity whether it is to read (both books and websites), to listen to music (I can even connect the iPhone to my car audio system), watch a video or even tuning in to the radio (Internet radio, with stations from all over the world),” he adds.

It has come to a point that he hardly turns on the computer anymore, he notes.

“Quite simply, it (his smartphone) is a computer that fits in your pocket, with always-connected Internet access. So almost everything that I used to do on a PC, I can now do on my devices and a lot more, honestly.”

For news, says Lo, he uses the Reuters News Pro and The Star Editor's Choice, while for reading his favourite app is Zite, a reader programme that allows him to customise for display the content he wants.

Crucially, this, along with other reader and games apps, gives him a platform to share and bond with his four-year-old son.

Other apps that he cannot live without are navigational apps, adds Lo.

“I just purchased the Garmin app but I recently discovered this app called Waze this is really good because it has an element of social media in it. Users (or wazers, as they are called) upload real-time updates for the benefit of other users. It can be (reports of) accidents, traffic jams, or even police roadblocks. The app then calculates the fastest route to my destination. And the best thing about Waze is, it's free!”

Lo jokes that he will not be surprised if someone designs his dream app soon one that can do his laundry and cook his meals!

“Seriously, there's an app for practically everything! With so many people developing apps, hoping to design the next Angry Birds, there's hardly any stone left unturned. I'm sure a very enterprising developer will some day design an app for a need that I haven't even thought about yet,” he enthuses.

Mobile apps are definitely something that 22-year-old Vicknesh cannot fathom life without either. “Mobile apps have changed my life for the better. I used to be only equipped with a laptop and a dumbphone.”

The sports freak names sports apps as his must-have. “One of my favourites is Bleacher Report and I will always read the latest sports news from there before I go to sleep.”

His other current favourite is FIFA 2013.

“When I downloaded this app, I wasn't expecting much from it but I'm now hooked to it. It has brilliant graphics, gameplay and settings.

“You may not believe this but it actually helps me to sharpen up my football techniques and whenever I play futsal, I will somehow visualise the movements of the players from FIFA. Talking about addiction, FIFA 2013 is beautiful addiction!”

For now, he adds, his only wish is that there will be more free apps.

Kajol Khan* is another who is grateful at how apps have enhanced her life.

“I love my Instagram since I like taking photos. And this one has special effects and all. I like my WhatsApp, it's messaging for free, and I love my Google Maps, too. Now, I don't need to leave two hours earlier because I have a map that takes me where I want to go,” she raves.

Another app that Kajol, who works in an entertainment-related industry, finds valuable is Shazam.

“Now when I hear a song, I know who is singing it,” she says, adding that it has helped her keep up to date at work.

In fact, smartphone apps are fast making boredom an obsolete word in her vocabulary, Kajol shares.

“There's always something to read or do or whatever to occupy me when I am alone, so I never feel bored.

“I can also keep myself updated on all things happening with other people on Twitter. I don't need to make conversations with people I don't know. Small talk with strangers is so passe.”

This “companionship” aspect of smartphone apps, however, is a concern for graphic designer Haris.

“Most functional apps have made life easier, like mobile banking apps, cinema apps, or AES location apps. They are all useful. On the other hand, others like social networking apps have helped give rise to the mobile generation like me those who spend more time on their phones than anything else, even when with other people,” says the Facebook app junkie.

“The FB app's ready access to the social network has made me quite addicted. I end up using it very often throughout the day,” he admits.

Still, he hopes, half seriously, that one day “someone would come up with an app that can remotely control our vehicles or order deliveries, or anything else that could contribute to our ever-increasing mobile-induced laziness.”

App danger

While mobile apps have enhanced people's lives, experts warn of the users' vulnerability to risks and dangers.

According to security firm Symantec's annual Norton Cybercrime Report, cyber-crooks are increasingly taking aim at smartphones as lifestyles migrate to Internet-linked mobile devices.

Symantec reported that such crimes have cost consumers worldwide US$110bil (RM342bil) in the past year, with an increase in attacks on mobile devices and online social networks.

The problem is many users, specifically the young, are not aware of the security risks on the fast-growing mobile platforms and social networks.

Kajol admits that she is among those who are not aware of the dangers.

“What I do to keep safe is to keep as little personal data as I can on my phone,” she says.

Mohamed Anwer Mohamed Yusoff, Innovation and Commercialisation head at CyberSecurity Malaysia, warns that many users are not even taking the basic steps to protect their mobile devices.

As he said at the GoMobile 2012 conference earlier this year, some 67% of smartphone users do not use keypad locks or passwords while 65% worry more about security on their laptop or desktop than mobile device.

Describing cyber crime as bigger than illegal drugs, Mohamed Anwer advises users not only to secure their devices but also not to share passwords and to be constantly data aware.

This is proving to be an urgent concern after a recent application privacy report by the Juniper Networks' Mobile Threat Center (MTC). As it indicates, permissions and capabilities in apps could expose consumers' sensitive personal data.

In an analysis of more than 1.7 million apps on the Google Play market from March 2011 to September 2012, Juniper Networks discovered that a wide group of application developers and advertising networks can now collect information about users' activities and leverage the functionality of their devices.

It reported that the danger is intensified due to users' lack of understanding of with whom and how they are sharing personal information when installing these apps. Additionally, many apps collect information or require permissions unnecessary for the described functionality of the app.

As it claimed, many apps collect information for reasons less apparent than advertising and have potential for abusing permissions.

Some categories of applications reportedly overstep the needs of the applications when accessing certain permissions.

Free apps are 401% more likely to track location and 314% more likely to access user address books than paid apps, Juniper Networks highlighted, citing examples of apps that collect personal information from users that can secretly initiate outgoing calls, which, once initiated, can be used to eavesdrop into people's conversations.

Another app, it warned, can send an SMS message that will create a covert channel to siphon sensitive information from a device.

Juniper Networks recommends that the mobile industry correlate permissions to actual app functionality while helping users understand how their device and data are being affected by apps, particularly the free services. * Not real name.


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