Mobile Apps for Capturing Geolocation and Customer Data
As progress towards truly ubiquitous or pervasive computing continues to be made, some of the more important emerging technologies that will facilitate this goal are so-called “apps,” which are being engineered for a seemingly endless array of utilitarian as well as educational and entertainment purposes. To identify the current state of these technologies, this paper provides an assessment of the effectiveness and efficiency mobile-based applications that provide that ability to capture geolocation data as well as customer data and an evaluation of the potential benefits that can be realized by consumers based on the enhanced ability to gain access to their own data via mobile applications. In addition, an examination of the challenges of developing applications that run on mobile devices because of the small screen size is followed by a description of the methods that can be used to decide which platform to support, i.e., iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone, or Android. Because mobile applications require high availability because end users need to have continuous access to IT and IS systems, a discussion concerning ways of providing high availability is also provided. Finally, because mobile devices are subjected to hacking at a higher rate than non-mobile devices, a discussion of some of the methods that can be used to make mobile devices more secure is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
Background and Overview
Although the technologies have been around a while longer, mobile apps gained increased popularity following the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and since that time, there has been an explosion in use as well as offerings (Electronic resources review, 2011). In this regard, the editors of the Journal of the Medical Library Association report that, “Between Apple’s iOS, Android, Blackberry, and HP/Palm’s emerging WebOS platforms, users face a dizzying array of choices for professional, personal, and consumer apps” (Electronic resources review, 2011, p. 11). Although they differ in purpose and design, all apps share some common features that set them apart from other computer-based technologies. For instance, Poyntz points out that, “An ‘app’ — short for application — is a catch-all term for any piece of computer software that runs on a mobile phone. Apps can range from simple tools, such as currency converters or alarm clocks, to complex programs, such as word processors or video games” (2010, p. 19).
The source of apps has also expanded in recent years, with app engineers proliferating in response to the growth in demand, and most apps are either free or relatively low in cost (Frampton, 2012). In fact, even the most sophisticated and specialized apps typically cost just a few dollars (Poyntz, 2010). The numbers of apps reported varies of course depending on the date of the report, but some indication of current availability can be discerned from a recent estimate from Schaffhauser (2011) that indicates there were 653,614 apps in the iPhone, Android, iPad, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile Stores alone at the time of writing. Not surprisingly, these mobile devices are fundamentally altering the manner in which consumers and businesses interact with the Internet and each other. As Fisher points out, “Smartphones and tablets extend the mobility of our 21st century lives and the connectivity demands being placed on us. Furthermore, since they are portable and lightweight, and fit easily into our pockets, purses, or briefcases, they have become a formidable platform for commerce” (2012, p. 19).
Current estimates of spending on smartphones indicate that consumers invested $16 billion in 2010 and this amount will increase to more than $214 billion annually by 2014 (Fisher, 2012). According to one industry analyst, “It is the combination of the app and the platform that will make this growth in commerce happen. No matter how you look at it, that type of spending growth has a tremendous influence on the rate of app development” (Fisher, 2012, p. 37). Some of the more interesting apps to emerge from this amalgamation are those that are able to capture geolocational data as well as customer data in real-time ways, and these apps are discussed further below.
Effectiveness of Geolocational and Customer Data Apps
The relative effectiveness of apps that access data from the outside world or rely on what is available on the World Wide Web, or a combination of both, depends on the type of mobile device that is used, the latency of the available network connections, and the degree of specification needed by the geolocational app user (Poyntz, 2010). While various apps are written for the specific operating systems used by different mobile phone platforms, a bewildering array of apps has been created in recent years (and months), and more apps are being launched every day. For instance, Poyntz reports that, “The Android operating system produced by Google has over 70,000 apps available, while the iOS 4 system used by the Apple iPhone has over 200,000” (2010, p. 19). The effectiveness of these apps varies depending on user intent, available connectivity and latency, as well as the quality of the app design, all of which will contribute or detract from the potential benefits consumers are able to derive from these emerging technologies as discussed further below.
Potential Consumer Benefits
Apps for these platforms can be used to gain access to online information in ways that supplant or even eliminate the need for interpretive signage at sites of historical interest, and these trends are already taking place, including apps for the following:
A walking tour of Key West Cemetery;
Historic Riverside Cemetery tour;
St. Matthew’s Cemetery Quebec;
A walking tour of an historic district such as architecture walks around Seoul;
Wicked walks Charleston;
Wolf walk Carolina State University;
Guides to nature areas such as Gippsland walks;
Access to samples of, or full texts of, heritage digitized material at the British Library and Bavarian State Library; and A way of overlaying historic photographs in augmented reality as used by the Museum of London (Forsyth, 2011).
With respect to the last entry, Poyntz notes that, “One of the most celebrated historical AR applications is the Museum of London’s StreetMuseum app for the iPhone. It uses the iPhone’s GPS to locate the user’s position in London and will notify them if it has historical pictures or photographs of a location nearby” (2010, p. 21). The highly personalized interface provided by this and similar apps makes them highly desirable by consumers that want to interact with the physical world by using their wireless devices. In this regard, Poyntz adds that “If the user holds the iPhone’s camera up to the location and looks at the screen, the app superimposes the historical image onto the scene being observed in the present. So far the app has images for over 200 locations in the city” (2010, p. 21).
While these types of applications may appear frivolous, they do reflect the tendency to incorporate real-world information with Internet-based supplemental data in ways that have never been explored and which continue to evolve in response to demand. Indeed, some industry analysts predict that apps will soon replace desktop computers as the primary way people interface with the Internet. According to Matheison, “Looking out five years, one can envision a world in which mobile apps serve as the primary interface that consumers use to interact with many brands. Indeed, marketers may have little choice. By 2020, mobile apps alone will be as big or bigger than the Internet, peaking at 10 million apps before leveling off” (p. 11). Some of the other geolocational apps that are being reported in the peer-reviewed literature include:
1. AIM, the AOL Instant Messenger and location-aware classic (one user reports “AIM allows me to stay connected to my staff and co-workers. We live on this app”);
2. WebEx and GoToMeeting;
3. iPhone Maps identify location and the ability to share this data with others; and,
4. AroundMe locates everything from hotels and restaurants to parking places and hotels near a user’s current location; and,
5. Bump, which allows users to “bump” others’ smartphones to exchange information with them, thereby eliminating the need for old-school business cards (Schaffhauser, 2011).
It will not be long before apps and mobile devices outpace other computing applications for consumer purchases and Web interface. In this regard, Fisher (2012) reports that, “The growth of powerful smartphones and tablet computers is redefining the marketplace. What’s astounding is more than the sheer volume of purchases that have taken place since 2010. It is the fact that many users of these wireless devices do not visit traditional websites or specially designed mobile sites. Even though the internet is ‘their space,’ it is apps (mobile applications) that they use most” (p. 19).
Indeed, almost 100 million smartphones will be purchased in 2012, followed by more than 25 million tablet computers, meaning that by year’s end, fully 20% of American households will own a smartphone or tablet (Fisher, 2012). The potential benefits that can accrue to consumers and businesses that use geolocational apps therefore directly relates to what type of commercial or personal purposes to which these technologies are applied and which technologies they replace. In this regard, Fisher (2012) emphasizes that, “The growth in apps, smartphones, and tablets is viral, and signals a huge shift in the marketplace, because it allows users to select or personalize the functionality of their devices. Apps give smartphone and tablet owners power and versatility. Without apps, smartphones are expensive bricks and tablets are thin, flat-screen laptops” (p. 19).
The Challenges of Developing Apps that Run on Mobile Devices with Small Screens
Some mobile “look-at” devices have much larger screens than others, and the challenge in translating online content to these devices is less severe than in other cases where screen sizes may be downright tiny. According to Fisher, “With millions of smartphones and more than one million apps on the market, consumers and businesses alike are finding new ways to use the internet. Many are not using websites, because websites do not adapt well to the smartphone and do not have the feature functionality that users want” (2012, p. 19). The effectiveness of the geolocational and customer data features of these apps therefore depends on the human-screen interface, and some Web content is simply not suited for this smaller environment. Both tablets and smartphones are Internet-ready but most also use operating systems that are not based on Windows; however, there is an important difference in the two pieces of hardware: “The smartphone and tablet operating system is the key differentiator. [With a tablet], it is as simple as touch, sweep, or drag and drop. That’s it. Instead of selecting your ‘favorites’ tab or a drop-down box on your internet browser, all you have to do is tap a previously downloaded app icon and you are there” (p. 19).
In any event, the interface can be seamless and effective if the content is tailored to take the screen sizes that will be used to access it into account. As Fisher points out, “If you own a smartphone or tablet, you know it is a touch-based interface, which does not require a mouse or keyboard. Apps are fast, easy, and not a website. Using your fingertips, you can interact with the apps and accomplish just about any task you desire” (p. 19). While it is possible to “accomplish just about any task you desire” with apps, the effectiveness of these apps again depends on several factors, including making the decision concerning the optimal platform as discussed further below.
Deciding Which Platform to Support
With thousands of new mobile devices and supporting apps being introduced every day, a decision concerning the optimal solutions for users’ needs may be quickly outdated. Despite this constraint, or perhaps because of it, some consumers and business professionals have elected to simply purchase one of each type of mobile device, i.e., iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone, or Android, in order to take advantage of all of the apps and features that are available for them at a given point in time (Fisher, 2012). Others, though, of a more pragmatic mind, can elect to use a single platform that interconnects with most or all of the others. For instance, apps such as Evernote help users keep track of all of their ideas and notes across all of these different platforms (Fisher, 2012). These solutions, though, are of no use whatsoever if a wireless network infrastructure is not available to support them, and these issues are discussed further below.
Ways of Providing High Availability
A growing network of communications towers and geosynchronous satellites are providing the foundation for a truly ubiquitous computing environment where availability is no longer an issue. In the interim, improved communications algorithms are facilitating interconnectivity levels across the country but accessibility still depends on several harsh realities of mobile computing, including the availability of network signals. In 2009, Apple introduced a number of features in its iPhone to improve network accessibility and to remain competitive (Foley, 2009). Although conventional line of sight constraints are being replaced by practical limits on existing technological infrastructure, all signs indicate that Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future and availability will not be an issue assuming the other constraints to pervasive computing can be overcome.
The new iPhone, for example, features higher connectivity and processing speeds that are nearly triple is previous offerings, but most industry analysts agree that these efforts are merely interim steps towards truly pervasive or ubiquitous computing in the future (Foley, 2009). According to Foley, “The iPhone 3GS has 32-gigabytes of memory, twice as much as the current biggest iPhone. In 3GS, the S. stands for speed. It has the same design as iPhone 3G but what’s inside is new. Messaging applications, games and attachments all load faster. [In addition], there’s a better built-in camera, with 3-megapixels, autofocus and video camera” (Foley, 2009, p. 37). Other handheld devices are also being engineered to take advantage of the growing number of geolocational apps that are available, but this proliferation has been matched by a concomitant increase in the number and type of security threats that are arrayed against them, and these issues are discussed further below.
Security Considerations for Mobile Devices
Because they are replacing desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices and apps are becoming the focus of a growing amount of research concerning the security risks that are inherent in a wireless computing environment. According to one industry analyst, “The proliferation of mobile devices has created a major security concern that will become even more serious in the future. IT administrators must contend with a multitude of personal devices, smartphones, and tablet computers, many of which can offer access to sensitive data” (Hua, 2011, p. 21). Part of the problem relates to the relatively recentness of the technologies that are involved. In this regard, Hua reports that, “Mobile devices are vulnerable because mobile system architecture has not benefited from being battlefield tested for years and years, which is the case with desktop operating systems. When attackers focus on the mobile platform, they get a lot of bang for the buck” (p. 21). In the past, hackers have used malware to assume control of infected phones to generate legitimate charges that are billed to unsuspecting consumers (Hua, 2011). Moreover, the sheer numbers of users that are involved does in fact make these criminal activities especially threatening. For instance, Hua adds that, “The threats are becoming more sophisticated as social media spreads to phones and botnets take control and multiply through the users’ entire contact lists” (p. 21). Although many companies have sophisticated security systems protecting their conventional computing systems, there may be far fewer protections in place for mobile devices and their supporting apps. According to Hua, “Securing a mobile device presents different challenges than the well-established solutions for PCs. Phones-have lower processing power and limited battery life, so the security apps must be small in size, and much of the heavy lifting resides in the cloud” (2011, p. 22). One solution, available for free and in a premium version for Android, provides features such as scanning all apps of interest for malware and spyware contamination as well as providing real-time backup and restoration of lost data (Hua, 2012). In addition, Hua advises that, “If a device is lost or stolen, it can locate the phone, sound an alarm, and implement remote wipe and lock” (2011, p. 22).
Some of the other straightforward steps that can be followed to improve security of mobile devices and supporting apps include the following:
1. Implement complete coverage on the gateway side with filtering of inbound traffic;
2. Mobile device users should not log onto password-protected sites while on public WiFi networks where they may be vulnerable to eavesdropping sniffers that can read the data they send and receive
3. In corporate environments, security professionals should remind all users to evaluate mobile apps prior to downloading them by locating and reading reviews from reputable sources (Hua, 2011). (Hua, 2011, p. 37).
4. Finally, app banking must comply with the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council supplemental guidance on internet banking concerning security (Fisher, 2011, p. 19).
Not only can apps help consumers find their way around in foreign settings, they can help them find good places to eat and places of historic interest while they are there. Just as importantly, apps were shown to be able to facilitate monetary transactions virtually anywhere a wireless connection is available, and the geographic locations without connectivity are becoming the rare exception rather than the rule. Although the computer revolution changed things for companies and the Internet changed things for people, the app revolution is changing everything for everyone. The research showed that in the near future, more people will be interacting with the Internet and each other using apps than their conventional desktop or laptop computers, and it apps that are the driving force behind this shift. In the build it they will come environment in which these apps are being developed, it is reasonable to conclude that if an app is not available today, it will be tomorrow.
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