Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fire OS's Permission Problem

I own an Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet. It was so cheap, I certainly got my money's worth. But it does have some problems. The above screenshot illustrates one. This is an alarming set of permissions that are necessary to install this app (there are many more that don't fit on the screen). "Generic permissions access" sounds particularly alarming. Many many apps in the Amazon App Store and the Google Play store (which can be installed on the Fire with minimal fuss) have extensive lists of permissions, and the app descriptions generally contain no justification of this permission use.

Here's what it looks like when trying to install the Nest app (owned by Google) from the Google Play store on Fire OS:

The blame should really be shared between Google and Amazon: Google, for taking so long to get its act together on how users grant permissions to apps (Google didn't fix this until Android 6, Marshmallow.), and Amazon, for basing the latest version of Fire OS on Android 5, Lollipop.

Apple should get the most credit here, because they got it right first. For as long as I've owned an iPhone, I'm never been asked to grant permission while installing an app. Instead, iOS askes me to grant a permission at the time when an app actually needs to use it. This makes for a much better user experience, because it doesn't overwhelm the user with a huge list of permissions at once, and it is usually implicitly clear what the permission is for. For example, if I ask an app to scan a bar code, and the phone prompts me to grant camera permission to the app, it's really easy to understand why the app needs this permission. At install time, it might not even be clear that the app has a feature to scan bar codes.

Android Marshmallow essentially works like iOS in this regard, with the caveat that not all apps are built for Marshmallow, and thus can only have permissions revoked after installation, and with risk of causing the app to crash. Additionally, Android Marshmallow still isn't as widely adopted as the older Lollipop.

Maybe someday Amazon will fix Fire OS. In the meantime, I'm reluctant to install many apps on my Fire tablet.