A Franklin & Marshall professor noticed a trend occurring in computer software development over the last several years and decided to investigate. That involved creating a smartphone app, and enlisting one of the College’s summer Hackman scholars.
“Back in the 1990s, you would buy software that came on a CD,” said F&M Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ed Novak. “The CD didn’t change. You had it and that was it. You might go years before getting a new version of that software, if ever.”
As Novak explained in his Stager Hall office, the software distributed via CD started getting distributed via the Internet and every year or so a new version was released via the Internet.
“Now, with smartphones, they have these app markets, and they automated the update cycle so the updates come weekly, or, as I’m seeing, daily in some cases,” he said. “There’s a huge shift in the rate that software changes, the pace that it moves in.”
With app consumers complaining of “update fatigue,” Novak decided to measure smartphone app updates. With the help of senior Christian Marchini, a computer science major, the professor and student designed an app that records the updates of apps.
“It runs on Android phones. It waits in the background and when you install an update for other apps, it makes a note of that in a log that it keeps,” Novak said. His app even updates itself. “It shows up in its own logs,” he said.
What inspired Novak’s research is the phenomenon of the ever changing – and, for the user, ever updating – technology.
“It’s getting faster,” he said. “It used to be years, then months, now it’s weeks. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen in the future.”
Developers update or change an app for a variety of reasons including to increase security, add a new feature, and fix a bug. “Some developers just like to change things around to keep it fresh and new,” Novak said. “Snapchat did this famously a few months ago.”
The researchers are focused on how users experience those changes.
“There are a lot of updates going on, but there are also a lot of apps out there,” Marchini said. “For the past few months, we’ve been collecting this data, seeing how updates are happening, and how fast. The unique thing that we have is we’re looking at the user side.”
Since the app measures updates on Androids, the researchers needed Android users to download the app onto their smartphones. They recruited about 40 volunteers from a campus computer science club event, friends and family, and the crowd-source site Amazon Mechanical Turk.
“Right now, most of the people who are running the app are friends and family of Chris and I, and F&M students,” Novak said.
While the research is ongoing, Novak shared one measurement from their research – how much time passes between software updates from any app.
“How frequently will the phone tell you, ‘I have an app to update?’ We found that on average, it’s about every 25 hours, so every day at least one app needs to be updated,” he said. “We also found a huge variance. Sometimes it’s as little as one hour difference, sometimes it’s as much as 150 or 160 hours between two updates.”
The research has inspired Marchini to consider graduate school. He said he enjoys the more “hands-on experience” the app project provides him.
“Chris has been more help then I think he realizes,” Novak said. “One of the benefits of working with a Hackman student as a professor is that he keeps me on track. I feel motivated by working with the student.”