Tapping A Pain Point

Every new version of smartphone operating systems (iOS / Android) brings forth a ton of new features. Frequently, these new features include some (IMO) pretty flaky ones like Siri and face-recognition login. I don’t have in-depth knowledge of how Apple and Google decide which new features to include in their OS platforms, but if I was in their place, one way I would like to figure new features would be by addressing pain points.

One big pain point I discovered with my beloved Nexus One was that it could be lost / stolen, and once it was gone, I had no way of ensuring that all my data and applications on it could be secured. Yes, after I lost it, I did find a ton of applications that could have possibly helped me in tracking, wiping and even recovering my phone – but it was ‘after’ I had lost it. And that makes these applications slightly redundant. A person has to feel the pain of loss of a smartphone (or a close contact’s smartphone) before realising the need for an application that could have helped recover the lost/stolen phone.

I’m assuming that smartphone loss/theft would have taken off with the rise in popularity of smartphones over the last few years. Given the price of many of smartphones these days, losing them hurts. But that hurt can be somewhat lessened with phone insurance. The bigger pain point is the huge loss of data that we keep on these phones, specially if the phone was not locked and the data can be easily accessed by whoever got/took the phone.

My question is, given how big a pain point this potentially is, why have none of the major smartphone platform vendors – well, mainly Apple and Google – done anything about it?

Steve Jobs famously told Houston that Dropbox was not a product, but a feature. But, in my opinion, if there’s just one functionality that needs to be a feature of the OS/platform and not a 3rd party product, it is this: ability to wipe/encrypt, lock, trace lost and stolen smartphones.

Most smartphones these days come with GPS chips and regularly ‘check-in’ with the platform provider’s servers. Tapping into these two features, it should be relatively easy to provide a simple lost/stolen phone service.

What I suggest is this: Google, say, should provide a web page where I can sign in with my Google ID and see a list of all devices originally registered with that as the primary ID. When I mark a device there as stolen / lost, Google should:

  1. wipe/encrypt all the data on the device,
  2. remove all the applications I bought/downloaded from the device,
  3. disable most communication functions on it,
  4. start logging the GPS location of device, and
  5. display a static message on the device stating that it has been reported lost, thus disabled and should be returned to owner / police.
The first 2 steps would ensure safety of any user data that was there on the device, and the next 3 will help in recovery of the device.
Along with the option of marking a phone as lost/stolen, Google could also provide a ‘un-register’ device option so users can disassociate their IDs from the device before selling or disposing it off. The basic action required from Google’s side in this case would be:
  1. wipe all user data and applications from the device,
  2. reset the device to factory settings after dissociating all services and user IDs with it.

Yes, any smart thief might still be able to bypass all this by simply wiping the device and installing a custom ROM, but a lot of devices could still be recovered  and it would help protect user data on the phone from easy unauthorised access. More importantly, bricking phones this way would send out a strong signal to people who find/steal these lost/stolen smartphones that they are worthless bricks and they can have a greater chance of reward from returning them than trying to take them for keeps.

P.S.: I’m assuming Google can identify a device even when the SIM and associated Google accounts have been changed. Further more, I’m assuming that every time a phone checks-in with Google’s servers, it sends or can be configured to send this unique identifier information (IMEI?) to Google, and this can be used to tell the phone to lock itself down.

P.P.S.: I chose Google because their’s is the only platform I have extensively used and know for sure that the OS checks-in with their servers regularly. After the recent OTA updates functionality, I’m assuming that iOS too checks-in regularly with Apple’s servers and can, thus, provide similar functionality.

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