Interesting Times, Part 2

Welcome back. Last time, I implied that Google had made a big mistake in designing Android. Today, I’ll explain.

I can summarize the problem in one simple sentence. It’s impossible to back up your Android device.

Really.

There are some partial methods:

  • Turn on “Back up my data”. (Android prompts you to turn it on when you’re setting up the device, but if you declined, you can find it in the “Backup & reset” section of the Settings app.) This sounds good. According to the menu in Lollipop, it will back up “app data, Wi-Fi passwords, and other settings to Google servers”. Unfortunately, the description is somewhat misleading. Your Android settings will be backed up. So will a list of all of the apps you’ve installed. What won’t be backed up is the settings of all those apps. Game progress? Not backed up. List of websites in your RSS reader? Not backed up. Configuration of your e-book reader, social network apps, and weather app? Not backed up–unless you’re using Google’s own apps. The problem is that Google has made the APIs for saving configuration and app state optional. The number of developers who actually use them is miniscule.
  • Install a backup app. There are some. Some of them even work–but only for data the individual apps have marked as public. As part of Android’s security model, apps are largely prevented from accessing any data but their own. In order to do a full backup, you need to root the device. That requires a user to gather instructions and software from several places around the Internet and risk bricking the device. In many cases, it will void the warranty and prevent automatic installation of OS updates–and configuring the device to allow rooting will wipe all of the data on the phone. Yeah, the same data you were trying to back up.
  • Use the backup tool from the developer’s kit. Uh-huh. The average user isn’t going to use any tool that requires them to type commands. Heck, never mind the fact that the average user doesn’t back up their computer and wouldn’t see the point in backing up their phone; the portion of users who would even install a command line program is too small to count. Not that it would help much if they did. Google warns that backing up app data isn’t fully supported, and may not work.

The bottom line here is that as soon as you install one non-Google app, you have almost certainly lost the ability to move your electronic life from one device to another.

That’s not just a problem for people whose devices suddenly drop dead. It affects anyone who wants to upgrade to a new phone (Gotta have that larger screen, right?); anyone who needs to change carriers; and, of course, anyone who doesn’t trust Google to keep their data safe when the NSA comes calling.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Google can do to repair the problem at this point. Google doesn’t review apps at a level of detail that would allow them to require apps to use their backup APIs. Future versions of the OS could introduce a limited form of root access (similar to Windows’ “Administrator mode”), but that wouldn’t help anyone using a device with an older OS–which is most users*.

* As of January 5, Google’s own numbers show that less than 0.1% of users have picked up Lollipop since its November launch. Less than 40% have even gotten as far as last year’s KitKat release. Hell, nearly 8% are still using Gingerbread, which hasn’t received any updates since 2011.

Security is a spectrum. Every vendor has to strike a balance between user freedom and protecting users from themselves. In this case, Google put the balance point in the wrong place. How many would-be phone upgraders, faced with the task of re-entering all their app settings have changed their minds? A little more freedom, and we might not have all of those Gingerbread and Honeycomb users still clutching their aging hardware and praying that it won’t die on them.

5 thoughts on “Interesting Times, Part 2

  1. Gingerbread, here. But then, I’ve always enjoy being the quirky outsider — indie rock, Gingerbread, bonspiels, anything-but-an-iPad. Mostly, I’m just lazy … but now you’ve convinced me just to wait for my phone to die.

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    • Ah, so you’re part of the .8%! Probably not quite as nice as being part of the 1%. Thanks for proving my point.

      If it’s working for you, great. I’d be the last person to urge you to upgrade for the sake of upgrading.

      But remember: the longer you put it off, the worse the migration will be!

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      • I totally prove your point! It’s easier to just hang on to this old thing until one day it just goes off to sleep forever. But, I have my eye on a Samsung (with a stylus … I’m so old school!) so I may be doing the migration sooner than I planned. But, … I rarely get around to doing the things I should be doing … and then, disaster strikes.

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      • Much nodding in agreement here. Some advice for when the day comes:

        1. Do NOT allow your carrier to migrate your data. Limited as it is, Google’s backup/restore will do a much better job with your contact info.
        2. Plan to spend a few hours with the two phones next to each other so you can read your app configuration on the old one and set up the new one the same way.
        3. When you get the new device, immediately unlock it. That generally won’t void your warranty, and won’t prevent you from getting whatever OS updates Samsung grudgingly doles out, but it will allow you to root the device later without wiping out your information. That way if you ever do need to do a full backup, you can.

        Good luck!

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  2. Pingback: Ick! | Koi Scribblings

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