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DACS General Meeting
March 2014

Meeting Review:

By Richard Teasdale

The topic of the evening at the DACS general meeting for April 2014 was the Android operating system. Our speaker was Jeff Postolowski, an enterprise administrator at Western Connecticut State University. Jeff has wide experience of operating systems (OSs) for many computing platforms, especially mobile devices.

Android, owned by Google, is one of the main OSs for mobile devices, the others being Apple's iOS and Microsoft's Windows. Jeff's presentation compared and contrasted the OSs, particularly Android against iOS.

After outlining his professional experience, Jeff described himself as a hacker (in the good sense). Since Apple is very limiting in terms of what it allows users to do with their devices, he has done lots of hacking of iPhones to make them function in ways not intended by Apple. He now favors Android because it does not place the same anti-hacking restrictions on the user that iOS does.

In response to an audience question, Jeff explained that "hacking" is not per se a bad activity. However, some hackers seek to use "exploits" to steal from others, violate privacy, etc. In contrast, "White Hat" hackers want only to get the maximum utility from a computing device, regardless of the vendor's software restrictions and desire to control its users.

Android is an OS built on the Linux kernel. Any device that can run Linux can run Android. Jeff reviewed the various versions of Android that have come out since the product was first released. They have colorful names like Cupcake, Eclair, Ice Cream Sandwich, etc. Successive versions of Android added support for more and more hardware platforms, notably phones and tablets. The current version is KitKat, which is on par with what the iPhone offers today.

KitKat offers support for Chromecast which, like Apple TV, is a device that enables video streaming to a TV.

A major difference between Android and iOS is that Android allows the user to do pretty much whatever he or she wants with regard to apps. Apps that have been downloaded are completely under the user's control. Backups can be made on both platforms, of course, but for iOS, backups to the Apple cloud server are not true backups since Apple simply records the fact that the user has an app. A restore would be done by re-downloading the app from a master copy held by Apple, not by restoring the user's own personal copy of the app. If Apple decides to discontinue an app, the user will have no way of restoring it from the Apple cloud server.

iOS has no file manager whereas Android does. Apple has done a very good job of hiding the file system of an iOS device from the user. The files are there but they are "silo'd" by application. In contrast, an Android user can see his files and easily copy them to another location for backup, e.g. a flash drive.

Android is open-source whereas iOS is not. Developer access to Android is easier - it is free. iOS developer access costs $99. However, the application base for iOS is larger than that of Android because iOS has been in existence for longer. But Android is catching up and is now close to overtaking iOS in terms of the total number of apps available.

The bottom line is that Android and iOS appeal to different groups of users. iOS is for users who want a turnkey product - people who want something that "just works", without having to deal with technical details. Apple's products provide solutions for needs that have been pre-chosen and analyzed by the vendor. Android products better suit users who wish to make their own decisions about the solutions they need.

For users who decide to switch platform, there are a number of software aids available, some free, some for purchase, which can transport settings, contact info, e-mail addresses, etc. from iOS to an Android device.

Jeff feels that Microsoft has done a pretty good job with Windows phone - the big drawback is that not many apps are available (yet).

Another major area in which mobile device OSs differ is security. Malware affects everyone. In terms of security, Apple wins hands-down; Android is inherently more vulnerable because of its open design. Also, Google doesn't monitor the Android app store like Apple monitors theirs. If Apple discovers malware in an app, they will not only make it unavailable, they actually remove it from the devices of users who have downloaded it. Anti-virus software is unnecessary on an iPhone whereas it is absolutely essential on an Android phone. For Android devices, Jeff recommends Symantec's free anti-virus software. In response to an audience question, Jeff explained that he doesn't recommend AVG. Although free, its quality has not been as well maintained as that of competing products.

Asked to say whether or not it's safe to do online banking on a phone, Jeff stated that it depends on whether the user has "good" data practices. Good data practices include the avoidance of random web browsing, not allowing children to play with the phone, and having up-to-date anti-virus software installed.

Jeff's best-practice recommendations for Android phone users include: (1) install anti-virus software (preferably Symantec), (2) install the latest firmware (major vendors do it automatically but some others do not), (3) use the Chrome browser, (4) treat the battery well, and (5) watch out for suspicious notifications.

Treating the battery well means that when the phone is new, it should be charged completely, then not charged again until the battery is completely depleted. Jeff also recommended that a phone being charged not be used if at all possible. Walmart and Best Buy sell bluetooth-enabled phones that "pair" to a regular phone and allow the latter to be used to answer incoming cellphone calls. That way, the phone being charged does not have to be used to answer the calls.

The Amazon Kindle is another example of an Android device, however some of the standard Android functions are disabled, e.g. use of the app store. For some users, therefore, a standard Android tablet would be a better choice, however, Kindle devices have very good security.

Jeff concluded the presentation with a demonstration of Android running on his laptop, using a version of Android called vmlite 4.0.

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