An interesting bug in the Play Store update logic

Most people don’t update their apps, or phones, or Windows, ever. It’s something that should chill you to the bone and I have no really solid metrics on this other than people tell me their problems and I mention that was fixed 7 months ago and then I’m horrified by their phones.

TL;DR – Play Store only updating used apps has a price (small one listed below plus 9 month old updates)

To fix this somewhat, carriers force you to update eventually, and the Play Store generally will auto update the apps that you’re using. It doesn’t appear to bother with apps that you don’t use however. I assume the logic is Why waste bandwidth to update an app that you don’t use?

Story of an unused app

Last night my phone was dead for tax purposes, and I was on my tablet. I don’t do a whole lot other than reading on my tablet, but I’ve got a couple of my games on it. One is a server side game, I can play on one device and pick it up on another. Standard client/server relationship. Now, I hadn’t played anything on the tablet in a few months.

I did an update of all software on the tablet in the Play Store. There were only two things found to update, neither was my game. I wasn’t thinking much about this as I’d forgotten a fiasco that happened with my game and a lot of players about three months ago because it never happened to me. All the Play Store found updated and installed, I did some reading and then decided to play my game.

And the game crashed – again and again. I finally went to the Play Store, and suddenly surprise surprise, there was an update that had been released a week or two ago. This game’s had at least seven updates since I last played it on that tablet, but whatever. Because I hadn’t used the app, the Play Store didn’t tell me that it was updatable.

The bad version of the game had crashed, pushed bad data, wiped out the local config which meant I was stuck for the next 11 minutes in the game intro tutorial.

So that was minor, this might not be

A person stops using an app waiting for an update that never comes because Google’s trying to save a petabyte or two here and there on these massive updates.

A person doesn’t get an update to an app, uses it in the future, and is immediately a target for an exploit or hack that was patched months ago and won’t be updated until later on.

Just any of the dangers of running outdated software.

An easy fix

For those security minded paranoid freaks like me, an option to update everything when it’s updated. For those who are slightly less, an option to check for updates on an “unused” app launch – “hey, you haven’t used this in a while, there’s an update, should we install this first?” and an option to just leave things like they are.

Eh, it cost me 11 minutes of my life… I’m a special use case when it comes to apps and disasters, but it seems like a potential security concern.

To reproduce / see for yourself

Go to the Play Store app, tap your profile, manage apps and devices, second thing should be updates, you might have one or two, update, go in, check for updates, if you’re like me you’ll see all apps are up to date. Check again, I dare you.

Now, go find some apps you have not used in a while. Open them. Get out. Go back to the Play Store. Check for updates again.

Picture on the left – no updates at 2:56. Picture on the right after I opened a few things, two updates one from November of 2021 and one from April of 2022. One is at least 7 & 1/2 months old, and the other 2-3 months.

If I’d stopped using an app because it had problem, I might never use it again.

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Paul E King

Paul King started with GoodAndEVO in 2011, which merged with Pocketables, and as of 2018 he's evidently the owner. He lives in Nashville, works at a film production company, is married with two kids. Facebook | Twitter | Donate | More posts by Paul | Subscribe to Paul's posts

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