10/24/2018

Autumn Research Fair 2018: Predicting Smartphone Software Updates

With app smartphone consumers complaining of “update fatigue,” Franklin & Marshall College senior Christian Marchini, a computer science major, and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Ed Novak, have designed an app that records the updates of apps.

“There are a lot of updates going on, but there are also a lot of apps out there,” Marchini said. “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.”

What inspired the research is the phenomenon of the ever changing – and, for the user, ever updating – technology, Novak said. “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.”

  • A senior and computer science major, Marchini's research assistance has been critical to the app's development, Professor Novak says. “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.” A senior and computer science major, Marchini's research assistance has been critical to the app's development, Professor Novak says. “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.” Image Credit: Deb Grove

The student- and professor-developed app runs on Android phones, Marchini said. It waits in the background and when a user installs an update for other apps, their app makes a note of that in a log that it keeps. The app even updates itself, Novak said. “It shows up in its own logs.” 

Software 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.”

Marchini’s research is focused on how users experience those changes.

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.

To get the app, users can search the play store for "Update Timing Collector" or google "Update Timing Collector." 

The research reflects how much technology has changed in just the last two decades. “Back in the 1990s, you would buy software that came on a CD,” Novak said. “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.”

Smartphones now have app markets, which means the updates come weekly. “I’m seeing them daily in some cases,” Novak said. “There’s a huge shift in the rate that software changes, the pace that it moves in.”

The research has inspired Marchini to consider graduate school. He said he enjoys the more “hands-on experience” the app project provides him.

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