Stay safe online – all about apps


It’s been a while since our last blog post, but we have had a request from a client to explain the world of apps. During the lockdown, we’re all relying more on our devices to keep us entertained, keep fit, stay in touch and home-school our kids. Not to mention manage our money and order our shopping! Whilst it’s possible to do all of these things and more using mobile apps, many of you may be confused about what exactly an app is, which ones are safe to use, and how to go about downloading and installing them.

In this article, Dave aims to demystify apps and to help you embrace them as friends to help you through the lockdown.

What is an app?

The word “app” is an abbreviation for “application.” It’s a piece of software that does a job. Back in the days before mobile phones and tablets, we used to call them “computer programs” or “software applications”, and in those days we had to install them onto our desktop computers from floppy disks or CD-ROMs. Then along came laptops, the internet and eventually the first tablets and smartphones, and installing software became ever more convenient. We progressed from disks to downloads to “app stores”. With this progression, apps became simpler to use, simpler to install, and simpler in functionality. Of course, there are still huge and complex “software applications” available such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite, but even these are now sold as downloads from the internet. As an IT professional, it’s not very often I install software from a disk these days!

Types of apps

There are three main types of apps: desktop, mobile, and web.

Desktop apps are usually fully featured, multi-functional and large in size. They take ages to download and install, and even longer to learn how to use. They are designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard along with a large display.

Mobile apps are often simpler and easier-to-use versions of desktop apps, designed to be used with a finger or stylus on a small screen.

Web apps can also be fully featured, and run mostly on the internet or in “the cloud”. However, although most of the work they do is not on your computer, they still rely on your internet connection and web browser, so more often than not they are lightweight and not as fully featured as their desktop equivalent.

Most apps these days are a hybrid of desktop and web apps – they have an offline desktop interface and direct access to hardware and other connected devices, but also an always-on connection to the internet for quick updates and access to internet resources.

So to give an few examples, Adobe Creative Suite (since 2013 called Adobe Creative Cloud) is a fully featured suite of creativity software, including Photoshop (photo-editing), Premiere (video editing), Illustrator (graphics and drawing) and much more. It’s humongous, both in size and price, but you can choose to install one or two of the components instead of buying the full suite.

Similarly, Microsoft Office is a fully featured suite of office productivity software, but again you can buy individual components such as Word or Excel.

What they have in common is their diversification away from desktop apps. Both have moved (or are in the process of moving) to a model where instead of buying a disk and installing as a one-off, you now download from their website and pay a subscription monthly (or annually). This has advantages for both the consumer and the company. The consumer gets regular updates and the convenience of not having to worry about messing about with disks. Depending on the licence, you can even synchronise between your various devices so you don’t have to worry about losing your work. From the company’s point of view, they can control their licencing, and they can offer a range of product enhancements if the consumer pays more per month. Adobe has now moved Creative Suite totally online and now only sells digital downloads and monthly subscriptions. Microsoft continues to sell boxed products, but Office 365 is the model they would like consumers to adopt, with a monthly subscription and digital downloads.

Adobe Photoshop, for instance, is the full-featured version of Adobe’s photo-editing package. But they also offer 2 mobile apps – Photoshop Express, described on their website as “intentionally built for mobile device photography. Its accessible interface enables photo collage edits and social network sharing”, and Photoshop Sketch, which “lets you create expressive drawings anywhere using natural drawing tools like pencils, pens, markers, and watercolour brushes to get all the textures and blending effects you’d get on paper.”

Both are free. They are part of the Creative Cloud, so I guess the idea is to get you hooked into the Adobe ecosystem so that they can “upsell” their products to you later.

So both Microsoft and Adobe apps exist in all 3 forms – desktop, mobile and web – as well as using a hybrid model for their desktop apps.

To add to the confusion, some apps are only available in one or 2 of the 3 formats. For instance, you can use the Gmail mobile or web app to access your emails, but there’s no desktop app. Many PC games are now online only. Many are desktop only. And many are a hybrid of two or more.

Where do I get apps?

Where you get your apps from depends on which of the 3 types you want to use. Desktop apps are usually downloaded using your web browser, ideally from the website of the company that created the app (think Adobe and Microsoft). If you’re using Windows 10, the Microsoft Store is a safe source of desktop apps. Similarly, the Mac App Store is a safe way to get apps if you’re using Mac OS.

There are also unofficial sources of desktop apps that check their content for malware, so you can rest assured that these are reasonably safe places to download from. Softpedia and FileHippo are my favourites, but SourceForge is also a good source of free and open-source software. Beware of free or heavily-discounted apps that seem too good to be true. Can you really trust that “free” version of Photoshop? Probably not. When people offer software for free that you would otherwise have to pay for, they’re not doing it to be a good Samaritan. It will more than likely be loaded with malware. Plus, it’s illegal.

For mobile apps, it usually depends on the device you are using. If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you will use the App Store to download. If you have a Windows Mobile phone (these are few and far between since Microsoft discontinued Windows Mobile in 2017) it will be the Microsoft Store. For Android devices, you will use the Play Store to download apps.

With all 3 of these, you will need to set up an account, either on your mobile device or on your computer or laptop. This allows the company to link your mobile device, so you can send apps direct to it from your computer or laptop. It also allows them to push out updates to the apps as and when they are required. Here’s a short video that shows you how to download and install an app to your iPhone or iPad. And this one shows you how to the same on Android. Finally, this one shows you how to do it on Windows phones. There’s also some nice further information about how to judge the quality of an app. This is something you don’t have to worry too much about with Apple products, as they have a very strict quality control policy. For Android, you should check out this page from AVG about safe app installation. The advice is pretty straightforward, but it breaks down into:

  1. Only use the official app stores and the sources I mentioned above. Norton has some good advice about using “third-party” app stores here.
  2. Be wary of fakers and scammers. Check the reviews, look at the number of downloads, check out the developer or vendor. Do a bit of homework.
  3. Check what permission you are giving the app.

More about permissions

Number 3 is one that I admit I am a bit lazy about. I tend to just click ‘Next’, ‘Next’, ‘Next’ without really reading what the screen says. That’s because I have been doing this for nearly 30 years, so I’ve developed a highly sensitive radar for what looks right and what doesn’t, to the point that I almost instinctively know when to pause and read that little bit more closely. My biggest worry is privacy, so I always check what data is being shared about me, and whether the app is asking to access the camera or microphone, or my list of contacts. For instance, some Facebook quiz apps are granted permission to access profile details. If the permissions are not changed, the app has access to the Facebook profile, even after the user has quit using the app. It continues to gather and store details from the Facebook profile — details that may be a security risk. I’ll be covering this in more detail in a later post.

Examples of permissions an app might ask for:

  • Storage: modify/delete USB storage contents — apps that store anything (like pictures and video) will require this.
  • Device calls: read device state/identity — some apps require this to be able to do something like “pause” when you get a phone call.
  • Network communication: full Internet access — this often related to ads too; the app needs to access the Internet to download the ads.
  • Your location: coarse (network-based) location — many games with ads require this so it can deliver targeted ads.
  • System tools: prevent device from sleeping — usually means that when you’re using the app, it will keep your phone from going to sleep or in a power save mode.
  • Your personal information: read contact data — any social media or messaging app needs to access your contact information so you can use them with your friends.

Some of these are downright scary and obscure, but you can check the permissions you have given to apps by following these steps: Open up the Settings app and head to the Apps & notifications menu. Then, tap on the app you want to look at (if you can’t spot it, tap See all). Tap on Permissions to see everything the app has access to. These steps apply to Android, but you can do the same on Apple and Windows devices. Wired.com has a good guide on their website.

How to get rid of an app

If you’ve installed an app and you’re not happy with it for some reason (i.e. you’ve found a load of scary permissions, or it’s causing your device to hang or crash), it’s easy to get rid of them. Here are the instructions for Android, these are for Apple, and finally these for Windows.

What about desktop apps?

If you’ve downloaded and installed apps to your PC, Mac or laptop, following the advice above will keep you safe, although the techniques will be slightly different. For instance, apps don’t generally ask permission to access your webcam on a PC or laptop – they just do it if they need to. Skype or Zoom will just assume they have permission to access your webcam and microphone. So will Google Chrome. Which is why you should always put some masking tape or a post-it note over your webcam when you’re not using it. I’ll be writing a post about ‘strength-in-depth’ security in the future where I’ll cover how to secure your peripheral devices such as webcams.

Because there are many more sources for desktop apps, and they are generally more complex, the risks are also greater. There’s some great advice here about safely downloading and installing desktop software.

Uninstalling desktop apps is a bit more involved than mobile apps, but it has become much easier than it used to be. For Windows 10, you need to click on the “Start” button at the bottom right of the screen, scroll down until you see the app you want to uninstall, right-click on it, and click “Uninstall”. Depending on the app, it will either uninstall straight away (if it was downloaded from the Microsoft Store), or it will pop up the Programs and Features control panel (if it was downloaded from a third-party site). For the latter, you’ll need to scroll down the list until you see the app, then right-click on it, and click “Uninstall”.

On a Mac, it can be a little more complicated. The simple way is to:

  1. Exit the program you want to delete.
  2. Open the Applications folder, which you’ll find by opening a new window in the Finder, or clicking on the hard disk icon.
  3. Drag the icon of the program you want to uninstall to the Trash.
  4. Empty the Trash.

Howstuffworks explains what to do when it isn’t that simple. And that, dear friends, is why I don’t like Macs…

But for now, apps can help you get through the lockdown. I’ve curated a few trusted sources of aps that will keep you happy, healthy and sane during this difficult time in the list below:

That should keep you going for a while. Stay safe. Stay at home.

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