Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

Man, Smartphones Just Don’t Shut Up

There’s a lot of talk about how increasingly data-hungry smartphones are threatening to overwhelm wireless networks. But it’s not just about how much data they consume.

A less talked-about issue is the fact that many smartphone apps are constantly pinging the network, like a kid asking his or her parents every few seconds, “Are we there yet?”

Only smartphone apps are even more annoying. Some ping the network as often as 2,400 times an hour. The result is network congestion and signal loss, as well as a far more rapid drain on battery life.

“Wireless signaling is a tricky topic because oftentimes it’s hidden, happening in the background without any user knowledge. But it’s growing bigger by the minute, as more users download more connected applications” said Isabelle Dumont, head of marketing at Seven Networks, which pitches a solution to help reduce the issue.

If current trends continue, the constant pinging of the network could eventually amount to 25 trillion signaling events per hour, Seven says.

The company, which has a product designed to reduce some of the noise, has put together a handy infographic on the issue, a portion of which is included below.

Update: One of the the things we were wondering was just how much difference there is among platforms, since much of Seven’s graphic seems to relate to Android.

“Whether it’s Android, iOS, or Windows Phone, they tend to be always-on, checking for content updates on a frequent basis, even if there is no content update to be delivered,” Seven said. However, there are some important things that make over-pinging a bigger issue on Android.

One, lots of apps operate all the time on Android. Also, Seven notes, “Many more apps on Android monetize through advertising, which by itself can be one cause of additional data and signaling traffic.”

Also, Google’s store allows all apps to be published, regardless of how “noisy” they are.

“By contrast, there appears to be much tighter control on the iOS side,” Seven said. “Any app on Android can operate in the background and take advantage of all services and APIs available on the operating system and the device. iOS comes with a much tighter control over which app can operate in the background and be ‘always-on.'”

As for Windows Phone, Seven said, “These devices are still in the early stage of adoption, and because of the relative low volume of applications available for Windows Phone, the signaling storm related to Windows Phone has mostly been ignored if there is one.”

In addition, as a developer reminded me in an e-mail, Windows Phone today just does a whole lot less in the background and has a different means for getting updates (pushed down vs. polling).

In some cases, such as with Skype, there are some downsides to the way apps can live in the background, but it does make them potentially far less noisy.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik