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Ask Maggie: On being patient and keeping smartphones secure

CNET's Maggie Reardon answers questions about Verizon Fios TV service, Apple's iPad, and smartphone security.

They say patience is a virtue. But it's certainly not easy, especially when you are waiting for the latest and greatest in technology.

Ask Maggie

This week I try to answer one reader's question about when he can expect to get Fios TV in his neighborhood. He's seen the fiber trucks and fliers promoting the service, and now he wants his Fios TV. But laying the fiber is only half the battle, especially in densely populated cities such as New York City where everyone lives in an apartment building.

If waiting for Fios wasn't bad enough, another reader wants to know whether he should buy the Apple iPad today or wait. There are several new tablet devices coming on the market in the next six to nine months.

Finally, I answer a question about smartphone security, as more software vulnerabilities and malicious code are found on mobile devices. I give readers a few useful tips for keeping their phones and their information safe.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question please send me an email to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Praying for Fios TV

Dear Maggie,
Do you have any idea when Verizon Fios might be coming to Park Slope, Brooklyn? I'm sick and tired of Time Warner Cable. They haven't been able to solve a home phone issue. This is after eight, yes, eight technicians coming by, getting the whole house rewired, getting new phones etc.


Dear Jorge,
The good news for you is that Fios is in Brooklyn, so now it's a matter of getting it to your building. I don't know when you will get it in your neighborhood or when you'll get it to your home. But if you put in your address at this Verizon Website you can see what services are available now.

If the service isn't available for your location, then you can chat with a Verizon sales person online to see if they can give you any updated information. Or you can call and speak to a Verizon sales representative directly.

Since you live in Brooklyn, I am guessing you are an apartment dweller. This means that things are a bit trickier for you than for people living in single-family homes. The decision to make Fios available in your building is often not left to you, but to your co-op or condo board or the management company, which has to negotiate with Verizon to get access to your building. And it's very likely that Verizon will require that most of your neighbors sign up for the service, too.

These negotiations can take a long time and there are many buildings that Verizon is working with. But if Verizon knows you and your neighbors are very eager to get the service, it might come to your building sooner rather than later.

A Verizon spokesman told me the best way to let Verizon know that your building is interested in Fios TV is to call this number 1-866-638-6066 or e-mail Verizon at FiOSNow-VEC@verizon.com. You can also go to the "Communities" page on the Verizon Website and fill out this online form. Under the building owner section, note that you are a resident of the building. It's a good idea to get your neighbors to fill out the form to let Verizon know there is interest from residents in the building. A sales person will contact you or the management company to get the ball rolling.

iPad now or wait?

Dear Maggie,
Should I buy an iPad now, wait for the next generation version whenever that is, or opt instead for the forthcoming Dell, LG or Google tablet? This is what keeps me up at night.

Dear Jeff,
Sorry that you are losing sleep over this. But whether you buy the iPad now or wait is really up to you. If you really want it now and have the spare $500 or $600, then just buy it. But if you find it hard to part with your hard-earned cash, you might want to wait.

As you noted, there will be another version of the iPad. I don't know when it will be launched or which features it will have. Based on Apple's history of releasing products, I'd guess that a new version of the iPad won't be available until at least the spring of 2011. As is the case with all new upgraded technologies, it will likely be better and cheaper than what is available today. But that's just the nature of technology.

So you are asking an age old question: buy a new product today or wait until six months from now for a better, cheaper product. If you constantly wait for the latest and greatest, you'll never actually buy anything.

But in this case there are going to be lots of competitors to the iPad hitting the market in the next year. Several companies, including Samsung, LG Electronics, Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Asus, Research In Motion, and Dell have either announced or hinted that they will be launching touchscreen tablets sometime between now and March 2011.

It's difficult to say how these new tablets will stack up to the iPad. One thing is almost certain: these other platforms will not have the same number of apps at launch as the iPad. Not only does the iPad have a months-long head start, but it's got the full backing of an already revved developer community. There are already some 225,000 apps in the Apple App Store.

That said, there could be some very interesting devices coming to market. The biggest threat to the iPad may come from Google. Rumor has it that Google is planning to release a tablet in November that uses its Chrome OS.

According to the blog Download Squad unnamed sources said that Google has partnered with HTC to offer a Chrome OS-based tablet. The device will run on Verizon Wireless' network and may be offered for free with a two-year service contract from Verizon wireless.

Google and Verizon are not saying anything about a possible Chrome OS tablet. In fact, Google has never confirmed that Chrome OS would be used for tablets. The company's mobile Android platform is already being used by several manufacturers for upcoming tablets.

So the short answer to your question is that unless you really need the iPad now, I'd wait. Even if these other devices don't end up being as cool as the iPad, you'd at least get the chance to comparison shop. And if you wait six months to see what's coming from other vendors, you might as well wait to see what Apple introduces as the second generation iPad. So if I were you, I'd be patient and weigh my options.

Securing your smartphone

Dear Maggie,
My husband and I just bought Google Android phones. He is really paranoid about viruses and malware. Should we have antivirus software on our new smartphones?
Thank you,

Dear Stephanie,
Your husband has reason for concern. Even though most malicious programs are designed to attack Windows PCs, there is evidence cybercriminals are now starting to target smartphones. Infected applications have been discovered on Apple and Google Android devices, prompting the companies to remove some applications.

"The sky isn't falling," said John Hering, founder and CEO of Lookout, a mobile security company. "It's definitely not as big a threat for smartphones as it is for PCs. But that's changing."

Malicious code is being disguised and embedded in games and other applications that people download from the Web and from application stores. Even Apple, which insists on reviewing every application that is in the iTunes App Store, has had to remove some applications because they were suspected of security vulnerabilities.

Hering said that mobile users can download security apps, such as the one from Lookout that detects when an application is trying to do something it shouldn't. Currently, the Lookout antivirus and security software is available as an application for Android, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry OS devices. The company is working on getting an app approved for the iPhone.

In addition to malicious viruses, malware or spyware, Hering said that mobile users should also be concerned with apps that access, process and transmit personal information from your cell phone to a server. Even legitimate apps may be sharing and transferring sensitive personal data about your usage and whereabouts without you even knowing it.

Lookout has begun what it calls the App Genome project to map smartphone applications and describe what they do. Lookout is tracking whether applications do what they claim to do and whether they actually do more than is expected.

So far, the project has looked at roughly 300,000 smartphone applications. Of the applications it has analyzed, about one third of the applications examined try to get the user's location and roughly 10 percent attempt to get address and contact lists.

This may be fine for applications where location and address book syncing is useful for the application, but Hering said there are times when applications are accessing this information unnecessarily. And that is when consumers should be wary.

"It's important to understand what the app is doing on your phone," Hering said. "If a tick-tack-toe app is trying to access my contacts and report my location, that's sort of suspicious. So you might want to be careful."

Ensuring that your smartphone remains free of malicious code and/or is not transmitting sensitive personal data is up to the user. Here are some useful tips for keeping your cell phone and your personal information private:

  1. Only download applications from trusted sources. Be sure to check the number of downloads and recommendations for the app.
  2. Run a security app, such as the one from Look Out, on your phone to ensure the apps you download are safe.
  3. Download updates for apps regularly--especially banking and payment apps. Developers may find and fix security bugs in these updates.
  4. Be careful when logging into apps that access sensitive data. Just as on your PC, ensure you don't login to a Web site or mobile application that doesn't come directly from a trusted company.
  5. Use a password on your phone.