Microsoft, Google Chime in With Apple on Smartphone Kill Switch

NEWS ANALYSIS: Did Google and Microsoft really agree to add the switch for the good of their customers, or were they pushed into it by California's pending new law requiring kill switches?

The long-awaited and much-demanded cell phone "kill switch" is finally coming. It'll show up in drips and drabs and in fits and starts. It won't be universal. But it'll be here, sort of.

For reasons that remain open to speculation, mobile phone makers besides Apple have been reluctant to provide their customers with a means of wiping and deactivating their phones if they're lost or stolen. When Apple announced iOS 7 in 2013, the company included a new feature with the "Find my iPhone" app, which would permanently prevent a thief from activating a stolen iOS 7 device.

Of course, the "Find my iPhone" app has more prosaic uses, such as helping you find your device when it falls under your desk or a family member "borrows" it; I use this feature with depressing regularity. All that's required to invoke the Activation Lock is to set up a 4-digit PIN and require it for unlocking the phone. When you set up iOS7, this is done by default.

Microsoft will extend the "Find my Phone" app on Windows Phone to have similar capabilities, but there's no clear word on whether this will be backward-compatible with older Windows devices when they're upgraded to a new version of Windows Phone.

Google has likewise announced that new versions of Android would have a similar means of protecting phones; however, few details were available.

Unfortunately for nearly all Android users and for many Windows Phone users, the protection of a Kill Switch will remain out of reach for months to come. Many Windows phones don't receive upgrades from Microsoft even if they're released because the carriers that sold them don't provide the upgrades. For example, a Nokia 810 sold by T-Mobile stopped receiving any updates from Microsoft in 2013, so it's unlikely to expect the kill switch will make it.

The situation is far worse with Android where the OS fragmentation defies any attempt at consistent updates. In fact, most Android devices receive few updates to new versions of the OS, and are also unlikely to get any potential kill switch.

What makes the Android situation worse is that Samsung devices experienced a dramatic increase in theft, even while thefts of Apple devices were plummeting. While Samsung has an anti-theft app of its own, it's not enabled by default, and it's not set up automatically when you activate the phone with Google.

The late entry of Microsoft and Google into the kill switch arena gives credence to the view that phone makers and carriers are reluctant to do anything to slow the sale of new devices, and of phone insurance plans that both groups find so lucrative.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...