Mobile Apps Flood the Market: Will Hackers Notice?

Sven Appel, Mobile Tech Today, 2/2/2010

With Apple and its App Store leading the way, smartphone users are dialed in to a huge selection of apps ranging from virtual whoopee cushions to highly refined video games. But experts fear that smartphones will become more vulnerable as they grow closer to PCs in functionality, and the possibility exists that malware will be spread via apps.

Mobile phones are increasingly keeping computers switched off. Train schedules, Facebook, music downloads — all of these tasks will soon be handled primarily via mobile phones.

The key element here is apps — short for applications, and referring specifically to applications for smartphones. Apple was the first to make a major move with its App Store for iPhone and iPod touch, now popular around the world. Other providers are now offering software as well, including Nokia, BlackBerry-maker RIM, and the Android consortium. Tens of thousands of apps stand ready, ranging from virtual whoopee cushions to highly refined video games.

Apple remains at the front of the pack: the company recently announced that the three billionth app was downloaded from the App Store. The users responsible for that staggering figure now have more than 100,000 of the little programs from which to choose. Among the most popular are PocketGuitar, which turns the cell phone into a kind of virtual guitar, and Shazam, which can deliver the title of a song heard through the phone’s microphone.

While many of these applications are of questionable practical value, the App Store also contains a great number of helpful products, says Markus Weidner, a cell phone expert at German telecommunications portal teltarif.de. “I’ve still not found a multi-messaging program for my Palm Pre,” he says. The iPhone is perhaps the only phone that can really be made into a digital Swiss Army Knife through apps.

There are also apps for Google’s Android operating system : 18,000 in the Android Market at last count. The RepliGo Reader, for example, can display PDF files, and Photovault can encrypt image files. BlackBerry-maker RIM also provides a platform for mobile applications. “There are currently more than 4,500 apps in the BlackBerry App World,” says spokesman Rainer Puster.

Regardless of platform, the solutions all allow for direct download onto the phone. There are differences when it comes to registering and paying for apps. The BlackBerry App World currently only accepts PayPal. An iTunes account is required to use Apple’s App Store.

Vodafone recently introduced the 360 online platform for its customers. It is intended to bundle mobile applications with contacts and content. App purchases then appear on the user’s phone bill. Nokia’s Ovi Store is similar to the offerings of other platforms, but also offers map materials for navigation-enabled phones.

It’s not always a great idea, though, to select your phone based on the sheer number of apps the respective store offers, says Markus Weidner. “If you’re using your phone only for standard tasks like SMS, Internet or email, then apps aren’t really going to be essential for you,” he said.

The increasing prevalence of smartphones and the huge number of applications are providing a potentially tempting target for hackers. The first virus appeared in autumn 2009, on the iPhone. However, the bug only affected devices modified by the user to run software not authorized by Apple. Ikee, as the virus was dubbed, was more of an annoyance than a danger: it replaced the user’s background image with a photo of singer Rick Astley.

There are no known incidents of malware spreading through applications, reports the German Federal Agency for Security in Information Technology (BSI) in Bonn. But there have been attacks on vulnerabilities in apps. Smartphones do in fact appear to be growing more vulnerable — precisely because they are growing closer to PCs in functionality.

“We can’t rule out the possibility that malware will be spread via applications sometime in the near future,” the BSI claims. It’s thus a good idea to install apps only from secure sources.

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Posted on February 2, 2010 at 10:31 am by lesliemanzara · Permalink
In: Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Mobile Technology · Tagged with: , , ,

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