MIT Technology Review

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Google Wants to Help Apps Track You

Google will help people who build Android apps follow their users around without draining too much battery life.

Google is giving mobile app creators more ways to tap into people’s activities and locations without draining too much phone battery power.

More and more apps look at a person’s location to offer services, advertising, and discounts that are relevant to what they’re doing, and also to help people track their own activities. Google itself is at the forefront of this trend—with its Google Now service, it uses sensor data and other inputs, like e-mail, to try to anticipate people’s needs before they have to open an app or a search box. The more services it provides to other Android developers, the more people may see similar in-the-moment features in third-party software.

One new service announced today at Google’s annual developers’ conference in San Francisco will let developers build apps that recognize whether a person is driving, walking, or cycling without having a power-hungry GPS sensor reporting data in the background. Rather, the “activity recognition” service would let them tap into the device’s accelerometer and run Google algorithms that can learn over time whether a person is stuck in traffic or just out for an evening stroll.

Another service will allow app builders to create what are called geofences. These allow them to define an area on a map—say, an office park or a shopping mall—and trigger notifications or automatic actions once a person enters that area. It might pop up an offer or set an alarm clock, for example. The Google service will make it easy for developers to use Google maps to create up to 100 map-based triggers. Eventually, apps could allow people to draw their own geofences around their homes or workplaces.  

Many apps could already do a lot more with location data, but one barrier is the battery drain. A person who realizes that an app uses too much power might decide to turn it off or not download it in the first place. To overcome that problem, Google also announced a “fused location provider,” which has rewritten location algorithms so they use all the phone’s sensors—not only GPS—to more quickly and accurately target location.

Hugo Barra, Google’s senior vice president for Android, noted that the Google Play app store has seen rapid growth, with 48 billion total app installations. But apps on Apple’s iOS platform tend to generate more money for developers, which is a big reason why many apps often launch for Apple devices first. Helping Android developers better track their users’ activities and locations could help reverse that trend.