Nasty Android bugs and no updates for old devices blog home

Posted Monday, 01-Oct-2012 by Ingo Karkat

I'm not a big mobile phone user, so my dated G1 phone still suits me well. Yes, it's slow, and the limited amount of memory (and, increasingly, Android version 1.6) limits the number of apps that I can install. Nonetheless, I have about 25 custom apps, mostly small helpers, which prove useful from time to time. I had to uninstall some bigger apps (like a nice Kanji flashcards app) to free up memory. No worries; I can make and receive calls, and exchange SMS. Except… I could not receive SMS from my wife when we set up her new phone. I had successfully received SMS before, so the problem must be on her side, right? Well, I started to become suspicious after I also failed to receive shipment notifications (which fortunately were also sent via email), and investigated the issue.

It turned out I was able to send SMS just fine, but never received any. This question from the Android Enthusiasts' Stack Exchange pointed me to the sad truth, as evidenced by Android bug #4991 and bug #11045.

Known since Nov-2009, once the phone storage low notification appears, incoming SMS are silently dropped! On my G1, the warning triggers around 8 MB, so I quickly got used to it as I loaded more apps onto it. As most apps are around 10..500 KB, you don't perceive this as a big deal, just a gentle reminder that you can't go on like that and have to clean up before installing more or big apps. Nowhere did it say and you cannot receive any SMS any more! (in this case, I would have appreciated the caps); not in the warning message, not in the SMS app. I have suspected my wife's inability to correctly set up her phone, my provider's economy tariff, cosmic rays, and maybe alien interference, but my engineer's mind would have never assumed that with at least 8388608 bytes of free memory, it's not technically possible to receive and display a text message consisting of a maximum of 160 characters. (Well, technically, it has to do with the underlying Linux operating system and its storage quotas for non-root users, as this comment explains.)

The numerous comments at those bug reports show the anger and incredulity of the user base. As this is about silent data loss of one of the most core features of a phone, it should be treated with the same urgency as security issues, and fixed as soon as possible. (Google actually alleviated the problem only in Android 2.3, around Feb-2011.)

Recently, just a couple of weeks later, I read about an Android vulnerability that allows attackers to lock or even completely kill your SIM card through special tel: URLs embedded in web pages or QR codes. I tested my phone as well as my wife's — both vulnerable. So far, users can protect themselves by installing one of two apps (make that one for me; NoTelURl requires Android 2.0). I guess I will wait a long time until I see an official update for my phone…

Seriously, this is unacceptable. Silent data loss, discoverable only by sifting through deeply technical forums and bug reports, and bricking your SIM card via simple HTML fragments?! It seems like Google re-enacts all the mistakes that Microsoft and the big Windows application vendors have been going through. (But they inherited an old, DOS-based architecture that wasn't made for global Internet connectivity.) Is that the price we have to pay for playing catch-up to Apple's iPhone?

I do understand that for economical reasons, companies have to draw the line and limit support to avoid overextending themselves. I'm not asking for new features, but I demand that for a phone that I purchased in new condition, over a reasonable lifetime of, say, 3 years, critical deficiencies and vulnerabilities do get fixed, without third parties, in a timely manner, preferably without me even noticing. I hope the App Store and its infrastructure wasn't just invented to make tons of money, but also to be able to efficiently push fixes to my phone.

Actually, I'm in the privileged position that I will probably buy a newer model soon. Even though I'm not particularly fond of the high-priced Apple gadgets nor optimistic about Microsoft's attempts to play catch-up in the mobile market, issues like this will certainly affect my selection.
But what about all the outdated, donated, or sponsored smart phones in developing countries that fuel human and business revolutions? Assuming there's a market that delivers replacement batteries, some Android 1.6 devices like my G1 will probably continue to be operated in Africa for many years to come. And for some of those peasants and farmers, their livelihood will probably depend on the functioning of it. This is not just about some teenagers' missing a Facebook update from their friends. This is about maintaining an increasingly important piece of technical infrastructure, and we should not let the OEMs and handset manufacturers off the hook so easily.

Ingo Karkat, 01-Oct-2012

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