One of the biggest question marks around the government’s COVIDSafe app has been around iOS functionality – how it works, if it works, when it will be updated, etc. There’s a lot of confusion around using the app on an iPhone, which is a problem when almost 54 per cent of the mobile-using population uses iOS. But now things might be a little clearer.
During a COVIDSafe teardown and panel discussion earlier this week, some experts in field explained the difference between the Android and iOS implementations of COVIDSafe, and why iOS devices can’t run it as effectively in the background.
If you’re interested in watching the entire COVIDsafe teardown discussion, we have included the video at the bottom of this article.
How COVIDSafe Works On Android
During the panel Matthew Robbins (Mobile development expert, creator of MFractor) first explained how COVIDSafe runs on Android, saying it’s “perfectly fine” due to having a ‘service’, which runs in the background.
“If you think of an app like a car you have the exterior of it that you can see, which is the user interface, then you have the engine which you know is running… but you can’t see it,” said Robbins.
“A service is like an engine, it’s always running under the hood doing the scanning and the advertising [of the bluetooth signal].”
Robbins explained that Android has a start up receiver that tells apps when the phone has been turned on. This triggers apps to do certain things. In the case of COVIDSafe, it starts doing the background service that will search for the app’s bluetooth signal in other devices.
“Android simply doesn’t have the same concerns [as iOS],” said Robbins.
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How COVIDSafe Works On iOS
iOS doesn’t work in the same way as Android, which is why it may have issues effectively advertising COVIDSafe’s bluetooth signal.
“In general iOS does a pretty good job of detecting the other phones but the issue is the rate at which it broadcasts the advert of its presence,” said Alec Tucker (Mobile Architect & Consultant, co-founder of Obiquitech).
This happens quite consistently when the app is in the foreground, which is what the government has recommended people do. But problems can arise when another app comes into the foreground or if the phone is locked.
“All being well it will carry on advertising but that app then drops down in the priority of the access it has to the phone’s bluetooth resources,” said Tucker.
“If another app comes to the foreground that requests access to the bluetooth resources the COVIDSafe app will come second in that argument.”
Tucker also stated that some iOS services that can take priority as well.
It’s worth mentioning that the app can still run and send out a bluetooth signal if it’s not in the foreground, but it can be impacted by the above factors.
“They can cause those frequencies to decrease or to stop altogether.”
Devs who have been tearing down the COVIDsafe app are currently diving even deeper into the iOS code with the help of Joel Kek, an engineer who worked on Singapore’s contact tracing app TraceTogether, which COVIDSafe is based on.
The Future Of COVIDSafe On iOS
While the government previously stated it would not be working with Apple and Google (who are working on an API level solution), this narrative changed when the shortcomings with the iOS implementation of the app became known.
“We know that Apple, around the world, is working on that and we will provide those upgrades and updates as well,” said health minister Greg Hunt in a briefing.
A spokesperson for the Minister of Government Services Stuart Robert also confirmed this.
“The Government will work with Google and Apple to investigate whether the new functionality announced by Google and Apple partnership is beneficial for the app performance,” they said in a statement.
The latest iOS 13.5 beta also includes features related to COVID-19 tracing. The inclusion of this in the Software Developer Kit (SDK) and API will allow devs to create apps to help with contacting tracing.
There is also a setting inclusion in the beta that allows users to opt out of receiving COVID-19 exposure notifications, if they had an app installed that allowed for that.
There is no hard timeline on when any updates or fixes for iOS functionality will be implemented, but there has been talk that it will hopefully be in the coming weeks.
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