product thoughts

Google is now telling users that its iOS apps are out of date (despite no updates being available)

[Update: Users can’t reproduce this any longer, as they have pushed a server-side fix for this issue. It still counts as an embarrassing failure by Google. If you would like to see what the bug looked like, there’s a video at the bottom of the article.]

Amid Apple pushing mandatory privacy labels, Google is stalling on releasing updates for its iOS apps. Yet Google itself is now telling users that their own apps are out of date.

I verified that this warning is showing up for multiple apps (Gmail, Google Photos, and Google Maps). Multiple iPhones on iOS 14.4, owned by separate account holders, were tested.

About an hour ago, I opened my Gmail app to find that some of my accounts had been logged out. When I tried logging back in, Google informed me that “This app is out of date.” Indeed!

Google has not pushed updates to their flagship apps including Gmail and Google Maps since before a Dec. 8 deadline, imposed by Apple, that mandated all app updates include new privacy labels. The “nutrition labels” describe to users all the ways developers collect data about them, which has been awkward for companies like Facebook, whose business model relies on the company knowing as much about its users as possible. Tweets have gone viral for simply scrolling through the long privacy label section for apps like Facebook. It must be noted that in the past 6 weeks, Facebook’s rivals (especially Signal and Telegram) have had success thanks to users’ privacy concerns, at an unprecedented scale. Other companies hoping to avoid such shame have allegedly misled users about their collection practices.

Alphabet/Google has taken a third approach, which is to indefinitely stall on pushing updates to its iOS apps. But the company itself tried to downplay this popular theory. On Jan. 5, it claimed it would add Apple’s privacy labels to its apps “this week or the next week”. As Macrumors noted, some of its apps like YouTube have quietly received updates, but not Chrome, Maps, Photos, Drive, Calendar, or Gmail, which is unusual. While Google stalls on pushing updates to its apps, it’s notable that its rivals like Apple Maps, are continuing to innovate with new features in their apps. Google has also been facing rivals that, like Facebook’s rivals, have been having unprecedented levels of success over privacy issues, namely DuckDuckGo, which surpassed 100M daily search queries for the first time on Jan. 11. Privacy is “in” these days.

After saying “This app is out of date”, its warning goes on to say “You should update this app.” We can’t. “The version you’re using doesn’t include the latest security features to keep you protected. Only continue if you understand the risks.” Let’s hope that’s not true! If you visit the Gmail app’s page directly, you will see its last update was released on Dec. 1.

Presumably, the warning is triggered by an automatic check of how long it has been since the app was last updated. In this case, it’s been over 2 months. But only Google can resolve that situation. Here’s a video of Google’s warning being triggered:

Looking at the bigger picture: If Google really decided to intentionally delay updating its apps over adding privacy labels, it’s honestly hard to believe that such short-term thinking prevails in its leadership. They inevitably put themselves in a Streisand-effect situation, where in the end they’d attract more attention to themselves. Whereas if they had published early, the media’s attention would have been split across all of Big Tech’s apps. While the alleged decision itself was always doomed to end poorly, this “app out of date” interstitial is just an epic self own. I guess the decision to delay apps was not handled well internally, because such choices are probably uncommon and the processes to carry them out aren’t as battle-tested or familiar. John Gruber posited that perhaps Google is attempting to “wait Apple out — that public pressure from iPhone owners who use Google apps will result in Apple conceding to better terms for what Google needs to admit to in its nutrition labels. I don’t see that working.” I don’t either.

There is also a chance that Google is trying to do a cleanup of their back end — removing some data collection from ads systems — before publishing privacy labels. I really like (and want to believe) this angle, however unlikely, because it would show that Apple’s privacy labels are having a powerful pro-consumer effect on major app developers.

On the matter of if Google is really delaying its apps over concerns about privacy labels: they really want us to believe that’s not the reason, telling Techcrunch that the labels would start rolling out last month. Yet, that did not happen with the lion’s share of its apps. Take a minute to check out this stunning visualization, which illustrates the frequency of its apps’ updates before and after the December 8 privacy label deadline (h/t @thomasbcn):

From this blunt visual, one can not only assume that the lack of updates are related to the privacy label deadline, but that most of its apps are in need of bug fixes and aren’t receiving those updates.

I guess we’ll wait and see what happens…

(There’s a possibility that as I push publish on this post, Google is mid-update on a global rollout of fresh updates for its flagship apps. But I think that chance is slim, as Apple’s “Phased Release” option lets users immediately receive app updates if they visit an app’s store page directly.)