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When I go to the Google Play on-line store and install an app, how does my phone know to install it? Is it using push notifications? Quite often it happens within a few seconds so presumably it can't be using polling.

I just don't understand the nature of the connection between my phone and Google's servers.

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Yes, it's using a push notification via Google Cloud Messaging (GCM), the same as Google+ Hangouts, Google+, Gmail, and some third-party apps.

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Google Play uses C2DM (Cloud to Device Messaging) to inform your device about the download. On your device, the Google Play Store app has registered a corresponding "receiver", so it knows this message was meant for it, and downloads the .apk – which then gets installed to your device.

And yes, your guess was right: C2DM is also often referred to with the term "push notification".

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    C2DM is deprecated, and replaced by Google Cloud Messaging, in the Google Play Services library.
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 16:43
  • @DanHulme Ah, didn't know that. As a non-dev, I always assumed the two being the same (even the corresponding app permissions are called c2dm.permission.SEND resp. c2dm.permission.RECEIVE). So thanks for the pointer!
    – Izzy
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 17:40

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