Apple and Google are working together on a major effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 that uses signals from people’s phones to warn them if they’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for the disease.
The joint project takes advantage of two of the world’s most popular operating systems — Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android — to potentially reach billions of people. The tools will use Bluetooth radio technology to support apps that will be developed by public health authorities. Google and Apple will initially begin releasing updates in May, the tech giants said during a joint briefing Monday.
The two companies plan to build the tracing capability into their mobile operating systems, building off the public health apps. Once it’s part of the OS, tracking could be even easier, but that will require people to update their phone software, a problem that dogs the industry. A software tool, after all, is only as effective as the number of people who can access it.
Pushing out updates to Android is notoriously challenging. That’s because Android operates on devices made by a variety of manufacturers, who have to test updates to make sure they work. The cumbersome process has led to a challenge known as fragmentation, with Android users running different flavors of the OS that have varying capabilities. Apple’s update process is a whole lot simpler, but even the iPhone maker doesn’t have 100% of its users on the most recent version of iOS.