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Google sets Android on pirates

Phone-home copy protection

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Android now comes with an API allowing applications to phone home to check for a licence when launched, locking out pirates and anyone with an unreliable data connection.

The "Licensing Verification Library" does allow the developer to permit caching of responses, so an application shouldn't stop working when one gets on a plane, as long as there was a connection (and a valid licence) the first time it was run. The new API will allow developers to license applications for a set number of launches, or for a specific amount of time.

The Android Dev Guide has the complete details, but flexibility is probably more important than the copy protection. Piracy upsets developers of all types (seeing your work being stolen isn't nice) and the Android crowd will be pleased to see that piracy on the platform is being addressed, but providing such a simple mechanism through which developers can offer more flexible licensing should open up some interesting business models.

By happy coincidence the API will also let Google know every time an application is launched, but obviously that's not what it's all about.

The architecture is quite clever: applications make a request to the on-device Marketplace app to check the licence, and the MarketPlace app then does all the networking and security stuff. That means the application doesn't need authority to check the device identity, or even to establish network connections, so it doesn't need a high security clearance.

Software piracy is just as much of an issue on mobile devices as it is on the desktop, though not as widespread thanks to the limited market size. Palm OS had a nice feature locking applications to user names, which not only meant applications couldn't easily be copied between users but automatically allowed migration to new hardware. But that was far too effective to be copied by the rest of the industry, and since then mobile applications have struggled with locks to IMEIs and phone numbers (making the migration process difficult and/or expensive).

The iPhone's locked-down nature removes the risk of software piracy (some exists amongst unlocked iPhones, but it's minimal), but locking down the OS isn't an option for Google's Android.

Phoning home is a logical development and one that Microsoft has explored for desktop applications. It will, no doubt, prove popular among Android developers despite the privacy issues it raises and the fact that users will have to pay for the (admittedly minimal) data use incurred. ®

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