It's rare to come across a service that's directly tackling a problem affecting a large number of people out in the real world, but AppCertain is doing just that. Designed for parents whose children use an iOS device like the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, this new app-monitoring service sends out email alerts informing parents of the apps their kids have just installed, what those apps do, and whether or not they're appropriate for children.
The project is being incubated out of Birchmere Labs, the seed and studio fund within early stage VC firm Birchmere Ventures, which now both invests in startups directly and incubates select companies in a similar fashion to the betaworks model. AppCertain is the first studio company that Birchmere has publicly announced, partner Sean Ammirati tells us.
Based in Pittsburgh, and staffed by a number of Carnegie Mellon University alumni, AppCertain aims to help busy parents keep track of the activities associated with the applications their children are using. It's a “net nanny” for the mobile age, where it's no longer just about kids coming across inappropriate content on the web – it's about protecting children from the inappropriate content found in apps, too.
Although former Apple CEO Steve Jobs took a hard stance on keeping the company's devices kid-friendly (he famously once said that Apple had “a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone,” for example), the rise of social networking applications – like, most recently, Twitter's Vine app – has made keeping that promise much more difficult.
And it's not just pornography that parents are worried about. It's also things like violence and gore, language, drugs and alcohol references, adult themes, whether or not the app allows kids and adults to communicate with each other, whether apps are accessing data or services on the phone that go beyond what they need to function, whether apps allow for private communication which parents don't know about, and much more.
Explains AppCertain CEO Spencer Whitman, parents – even tech-savvy parents in some cases – have a hard time keeping up with all the new applications their kids are downloading, installing and using. Parents tell themselves they'll keep track by taking the device from time to time and looking through all the apps, but often, that doesn't end up happening because people are just too busy.
“The reason we started with parental help is there's a big need for it, but also it gives us an opportunity to focus on one platform, to really understand what the applications are doing on there,” says Whitman. He adds that iOS is the more difficult platform to build on, so if they can be successful here, it will be no problem to port it to Android later on.
How It Works
AppCertain works a bit like TestFlight, the beta application testing service, in that it also takes advantage of iOS's ability to load “security certificates” onto the device. Apple put this functionality in place so enterprise customers could better manage the mobile apps and devices on their network, but as TestFlight shows, the feature allows for other types of activities as well. In TestFlight's case, that's providing a platform for accessing and installing apps which have not made their way into the public App Store yet. And in AppCertain's case, it's about knowing what the apps on a particular device can actually do.
Whitman's background is in computer security, and he previously worked at CMU's CyLab with technology that runs a binary analysis on software programs in order to determine what that program – like Firefox or Word – does. “The initial idea was how can we bring that technology to mobile devices?,” he says, “because that's where we see a lot of opportunity in the future.”
In AppCertain's review of an application, it looks both at objective facts about how the app functions (e.g., does it acces the camera or GPS? does it upload your iPhone contacts to its servers?), as well as subjective information. On the latter, it's more about answering questions like “is this app educational?” or “is this appropriate for a young child?,” for example. Parents will help with those questions through AppCertain's community, which will eventually be designed to better automate crowdsourcing answers from its users. Whitman says the deeper behavioral analysis is also still being developed, and being able to fully execute on both of these fronts is around six months out.
Today, AppCertain's app database comes from the 1,300 or so apps its earliest testers are using, and it's adding around 10 to 20 more per day. When a parent first starts using the service, the tool is not yet able to send a full review of everything that's on the phone or iPad currently, but instead will begin sending out email alerts from that point forward. (You can see an example of that alert here, for Snapchat).
AppCertain Will Be More Than A Tool For Parents – It's Taking On Anti-Virus, Too
Further down the road, the longer-term vision for AppCertain isn't one of being just a service for parents – it's about re-imagining app security for everyone, and in particular disrupting the mobile anti-virus industry.
“Anti-virus is absolutely broken. With mobile devices there's an opportunity to fix it,” says Whitman. “What we're really interested in is understanding the behavior of every mobile application,” he explains. “That's our goal. While we're building more interesting analysis methods and while we're adding support for every application in the App Store, we can help parents out right now.”
AppCertain is currently working with and out of Birchmere Labs, which has also seed-funded its operations (undisclosed, but under $1 million). It's advised by CMU's Dave Mawhinney; John Pera, former Chief Technologist of the Federal Communications Commission and White House Assistant Director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy; as well as security policy experts Jose Morales and Lujo Bauer.
30 TechCrunch readers can sign up for the private beta here: signup.appcertain.com/techcrunch.