The Samsung Galaxy S3 doesn’t go on sale until tomorrow, but you wouldn’t know it from a glance at the XDA Developers forum, the go to place for mobile enthusiasts and hackers. It’s where, more than a week ago, the complete software package for Samsung’s brand spanking, heavily-hyped flagship phone was dumped online.
Then, [insert metaphor related to jackals/hyenas/vultures here], the Android fanatics descended, pulling it apart for all to use on any other phone – even Samsung’s headline features. S-Voice on a Galaxy S2? Yeah, we’ll have that. Flipboard for all? Sure, think I’ll help myself. But at what point does cutting edge enthusiasm become outright piracy?
It started with a trickle. Flipboard, the beautiful social media newsreader app for iPhone and iPad, was all set to launch as an exclusive for Android: for an unspecified amount of time, you would only be able to get it preloaded on the Samsung Galaxy S3.
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That didn’t last. On 9 May 2012, XDA member Valcho, who was briefly in possession of a pre-release Samsung Galaxy S3, used AirDroid to extract the install file (or .APK file, as it’s known) for Flipboard, and slapped it up on the forum for everyone to download. While it’s not clear how many times it’s been downloaded, the number of pages on the forum entry ran to 122 at the time of writing: more than 1,200 posts.
Then it poured. On 19 May, 10 days before the European release of the Samsung Galaxy S3, its full, custom software build (or ROM) popped up at Sammobile.com, leaked courtesy of an “insider”.
Enthusiasts got to mining. Within hours, S-Voice, the voice assistant Samsung had been touting as a rival to Siri on the iPhone 4S, was up online. Blogs published step by step instructions showing how to install it on any device running Android 4.0, regardless of manufacturer.
Now, because S Voice, like Siri, requires an internet connection, it can in theory be blocked from running on unapproved devices, and Samsung moved quickly to do just that. By Monday 21 May, S Voice was no longer working.
A statement was released by the company at the time, although it noticeably avoided condemning any piracy of Samsung’s own app.
“An initial test version of S Voice which was found online has been blocked as Samsung Electronics does not want consumers to judge the quality of the voice feature based on a test version. When the product is launched, users of GALAXY S III will be able to fully experience S Voice,” a spokesperson told The Verge.
Closing the window
Apple has done a remarkable job of stopping Siri’s use on unauthorised devices: Samsung’s block however lasted only a few hours, as an enterprising XDA member called ithehappy then modded the app so as to fool the servers into thinking any connecting device is a Samsung Galaxy S3.
Alongside this, ithehappy also released every other app Samsung has made for its new flagship phone, including a bespoke video player with wide format support, custom YouTube and Google Talk apps, and Accuweather, a weather widget which, like Flipboard, was meant to be an exclusive on Android for Samsung’s phone. The number of posts on this XDA thread now stands at six shy of 5,000.
To be sure, this rummaging around in Android is standard practice. The whole suite of first-party Google apps included in a new release of stock Android are regularly mined from the source code and repackaged on the Google Play Store, from the keyboard to the calendar app – sometimes even for profit. Google condones this, simply by allowing them to stay on the store.
We’ve also seen this happen with plenty of phone launches before – and not just on Android. But few phones that don’t begin with a lower case “i” have ever been so eagerly anticipated as the Samsung Galaxy S3, and if this continues to happen on a bigger scale, there will be problems down the line.
Now Samsung, for its part, tries to nurture the Android hacking scene: it often publishes the source code for released devices so that hackers can create their own stable versions of Android (“Custom ROMs”) to run on them – as it did for the Galaxy Note last week.
But when a device gets raided and looted for all its goodies before it even goes on sale, there’s a concern. Flipboard, which declined to comment for this article, could well have been paid a fee by Samsung for exclusivity rights; who’s to say that Flipboard would have taken the time to create an Android version at all without a financial inducement? The same may well apply for Accuweather, which also declined to comment.
At a manufacturer level, this wholesale plundering of software that may have costs millions to develop raises a serious question: if HTC, LG and Samsung Android users are just going to use your exclusive app for free, well, why bother to innovate?
Android already has some serious fragmentation issues, and it’s certainly hard to argue that manufacturer differentiation is always for the best (Just look at how confusing Motorola phones with “Motoblur” are to use).
But if Samsung, which is only just starting to get to grips with easy-to-use software designed for Joe Bloggs, can’t keep its crown jewels, it may not even bother making them in future. Who’s to say it won’t fall back into its bad old ways, pushing heavily on the hardware and botching the user experience with confuddly software?
“Essentially, it is piracy,” says Rachid Otsmane-Elhaou, the editor of Android news site Droid-Den.com, who confirms that his site sees peaks in traffic when ever he posts news about leaked software like this. People “are ripping IP from a manufacturer who may have spent a lot of time and money developing that IP and passing it freely amongst ourselves.”
“If Sony wanted their launcher on a Samsung phone, they’d release it in to the Play Store. There is definitely the worry that this issue can, or does, affect development at device and application level. It’s only logical that a manufacturer may think twice about spending the large amount of capital it takes to develop unique features for their device, when it is ripped and distributed to other devices before the phone has even been released.”
Piracy is no joke on Android. While some app developers have found ways around the issue, it can put others off completely: Sports Interactive claims to have seen a piracy to legitimate download rate of 9:1 for its popular Football Manager game on Android.
And if there’s no incentive, there’s no innovation. That’s potentially just as true for the people who make your Android phone as the small crews who make your favourite Android apps.
There’s also the security issue to consider. While XDA’s Thanks Meter is a good indicator of how trusted contributors are, installing random files found on a forum always poses security concerns.
It’s “possible for malware developers to potentially inject malicious code into apps that are found on forums or discussion boards,” says Derek Halliday, Senior Manager Security at mobile security and anti-virus company Lookout Mobile Security.
“This doesn’t seem to be a major problem on most of the more popular modding sites, but users should nonetheless be wary of apps that they install, and should carefully choose which apps they install based on reputation and reviews.”
Lookout, says Halliday, recently pushed out two new features “specifically designed to detect malware in these cases.” But even so, while that modified version of S-Voice you’re thinking of giving a go is probably safe, there’s no guarantee – and that’s a real problem as smartphone adoption continues to accelerate.
We reached out to Samsung for this article, but at the time of writing had not received a response. We will update accordingly when we do.