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How you'll get Apple and Google's contact tracing update for your phone

The tech giants say everyone will get access to the framework for tracking tools, regardless of which version of iOS or Android they use. Not everyone is convinced.

Google and Apple are launching tools to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Angela Lang/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Apple and Google are working together on a major effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 that uses signals from people's phones to warn them if they've been in contact with someone who's tested positive for the disease. 

The joint project takes advantage of two of the world's most popular operating systems -- Apple's iOS and Google's Android -- to potentially reach billions of people. The tools will use Bluetooth radio technology to support apps that will be developed by public health authorities. Google and Apple will initially begin releasing updates in May, the tech giants said during a joint briefing Monday.

The two companies plan to build the contact-tracing capability into their mobile operating systems, building off the public health apps. Once it's part of the OS, tracking could be even easier, but that will require people to update their phone software, a problem that dogs the industry. A software tool, after all, is only as effective as the number of people who can access it. 

Pushing out updates to Android is notoriously challenging. That's because Android operates on devices made by a variety of manufacturers, who have to test updates to make sure they work. The cumbersome process has led to a challenge known as fragmentation, with Android users running different flavors of the OS that have varying capabilities. Apple's update process is a whole lot simpler, but even the iPhone maker doesn't have 100% of its users on the most recent version of iOS. 

For Google, the update to enable the tracking tools won't be like a normal operating system upgrade. It will instead come through a set of tools called Google Play Services, which lets Android sidestep some fragmentation issues by pushing updates directly, without the approval of device and wireless partners. The company normally uses Google Play Services to update its own apps, like Gmail and Maps, and to push changes like a new app icon. The contact tracing tools will be available for phones running software as old as Android Marshmallow, the version of the operating system released in 2015.

"Given the critical nature of this update, I appreciate Google using the Google Play services rather than relying on users to download the update," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said.

It likely will be easier for Apple to roll out an iOS update to all of its users at once than it is for Google. Because Apple controls the hardware, software and services on iPhones, it's able to make sure updates work across its newer devices and roll it out to all devices at once.

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Apple is still looking at how to get the update on as many devices as possible, company representatives said Monday, but the uptake for its software releases is faster than on Android. 

Apple typically unveils a new version of its iOS software each June at its developers conference and ultimately releases the full version to iPhone users in the fall. Whenever it introduces a new variant of its software, the majority of iPhone users download it within weeks. 

The biggest mobile operating systems

As of late January, 77% of iPhones ran the most recent version of Apple's operating system, iOS 13. While Google hasn't released user figures for the latest version of its software, Android 10, users have been slow to download previous generations. The last time Google updated its distribution numbers, in May 2019, Android 9 had been installed on only 10.4% of Android phones. The three versions released before that accounted for 64.4% of Android phones. 

Android is the world's most widely used smartphone operating system, with 87% of all phones running Google's software in 2019 and only 13% using iOS, according to IDC. In the US, though, Apple's iPhone makes up a bigger percentage of the overall phone market, hovering around 40% of all phones shipped, according to Counterpoint Research. In the December 2019 quarter, the first full period with the newest iPhones, about half of all smartphones shipped in the US were iPhones, the firm said. 

When it comes to the contact tracing tools, the ability for a wide swath of the population to access them is much more important than it is with other normal app updates. As more countries look into apps to provide contract tracing to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, privacy watchers and civil liberties advocates have warned that relying on technology will create a disparity on who is counted when governments make public health decisions. 

The American Civil Liberties Union released a white paper on April 8 warning that people in impoverished communities may not have access to the latest Android or iOS device, pointing out that the people who need the contact tracing notifications about COVID-19 positive cases the most may not have access to it. 

In testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee on April 9, the Future of Privacy Forum's senior counsel Stacey Gray noted that certain devices are more widely used by younger and richer communities, which means that "the elderly, very young and lowest-income people" would be excluded from what Apple and Google are looking to build. 

Beyond access to devices, another concern would be access to networks. Researchers from Harvard University's Center for Ethics pointed out that a large part of the US population don't have consistent access to broadband. 

"If 100% of some communities use a tracing app, but other communities feel alienated by it, don't have the necessary devices, cannot get signal, or are afraid of government overreach, we may have a situation where the virus can more easily get a foothold in certain communities, further increasing existing inequalities and creating an atmosphere of stigma and disparity," the research paper said.