A new privacy feature in Android 4.4 KitKat called App Ops has caused quite a stir. The app showed up
briefly in Android 4.3, but it wasn’t meant for prime time; some users stumbled
across the feature thanks to Android’s intent launcher paradigm. The folks over
at the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) made no bones about calling the feature
awesome.”

According to Google, the feature is still experimental and
was supposed to be hidden. In fact, Google quickly pushed out an over the air
(OTA) update that made the feature unreachable. 

On Google+, Dianne Hackborn of Google’s Android team chimed in on a discussion about the sudden
appearance and disappearance of the feature. “It was there
for development purposes.” Hackborn wrote. 
“It wasn’t intended to be available.”

What is (or was) the app?

App Ops appears to be a dynamic permissions system. In other
words, users could install an app and then later choose to deny it some or all
of the access the developer requested. Think of installing Pandora, and then
using App Ops to turn off the ability for the app to track your location. You
could still find out who plays a song without getting the annoying targeted
advertisements.

For users, I think this is the way of the future. For
developers, it means we don’t have to be hesitant to include cool features that
require extra permissions, because users can still install the app and opt out
of granting access to anything that makes them uncomfortable.

Why it’s particularly interesting for developers

We still have no idea when this new capability will be available for the masses.
However, it brings up an interesting point for mobile developers that I think
has merit in discussing now rather than when App Ops finally resurfaces.

In the past, with Android’s all-or-nothing permission
system, developers didn’t have to worry so much about degrading features
gracefully — well, maybe here and there with things like locations services
and Wi-Fi. I suspect that in the not so distant future we will have to
anticipate and write code in such a way that the app still provides some amount
of functionality when permissions get yanked out from under it.

Going forward with a new mindset

I don’t plan to wait on App Ops to start coding with this
new mindset. I intend to write my apps under the assumption that users can and
will deny me access at various times to different system-controlled resources,
peripherals, and services.

Ultimately, I think this is the way all mobile development
will go. The apps we write live on what are arguably the most personal device
people own. Angry Birds co-exists on
your smartphone with things like contacts, pictures, and banking.

Putting more control in the hands of users is the right
thing to do.

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