FLOSS Related Thoughts On Mobile After A Year on iOS
I've certainly done my fair share of gnashing of teeth about smartphones. The same as anyone in floss circles. I chafe at the Apple/Google duopoly, though up until this past year largely from the Google end of things.
The average technically inclined person might read that and assume there is a short answer to this dilemma, surely you can just use a linux phone.
I'm no stranger to linux phones. The last two decades are filled with, short stints with the Openmoko Freerunner GTA02, and 8-14 month long stints with Firefox OS, on the ZTE Open. I've done a couple of long term goes with SailfishOS and mostly driven by my love of it's predecessor Maemo on the Nokia N900.
I've been keeping an eye on the various models of PinePhone in existence, and the distributions it supports. Though the consensus remains to this day “not ready for daily driving” if you like things like, working power management or not missing phone calls. I'm also not hugely into camera quality, but the camera remains mediocre or poor to most. Some of the most promising feature complete distros are also based on, rolling distributions which don't have the best track records for security or stability (sorry Manjaro fans).
Indeed, in my opinion, the two linux based mobile OSes to date who were fit to be daily drivers for consumers were Maemo and Firefox OS. This ranking is entirely personal opinion, I could go into the warts of all of these distros, but that is possibly a topic for another time.
This has left me mostly on Android by default over the years, as my fallback. In fact as far back as the HTC Dream. I also became a CyanogenMod user when official updates beyond Android 1.6 stopped. I've mostly been on unofficial ROMs when on Android ever since.
Being unhappy with the privacy violations of Google has caused me to drop a lot of their services. I don't know if I've used Google Drive outside of work this decade, for example. So I am also no stranger to deGoogled android ROMs. LineageOS + microG is something of a trusty fallback for me. One can also find me, amongst the list of backers of the original /e/OS kickstarter.
Storm Clouds For deGoogled Android
It's been clear to me that Google has become hostile to Android forks, and deGoogled ROMs. If you have any familiarity with the Android ecosystem's technically underbelly, you know what Google launched SafetyNet largely to allow developers to block or downgrade service on any unapproved Android ROMs. The community has found creative solutions around this, but most involved the use of a tool called Magisk. Google then put the lead developer of Magisk on their payroll in 2019. With SafetyNet becoming harder and harder to bypass as time passes.
More and more apps fail basic authentication these days on MicroG. Even seemingly popular apps like Hulu can no longer log in, which has been broken at this point for years. A lot of response from the overall “FLOSS enthusiasts in the pews” is simply to resort to piracy, or questions the rationale of using app X on a deGoogled phone in the first place. Though the fact remains, more and more of our culture is locked behind these apps, and if things like the /e/Foundation's /e/OS are ever going to be fit for general consumers. This must work.
In recent years I've run into a disturbing number of both social situations, and encounters with government and businesses where OEM operating systems were basically requirements, or increased friction tremendously. Where all activity was gated behind an app which fails under MicroG at login. It also seems to me our culture is moving from an expectation that everyone carry a smartphone to a culture which expects one to have a smartphone with contactless payment system, backed by a major company. Often in places, where it feels unwise to flash a contactless credit or debit card, such as when entering subway terminals.
I Mentioned iOS in the Title, Better Get Around to Talking About It
In September of last year, I decided to switch to iOS for a few reasons:
- I was feeling more and more, than on Android, Google's services were becoming non-optional.
- Apple seems like the only one in this duopoly which seems to honestly take privacy seriously.
- Material You was both ugly, and was partly broken on deGoogled Android 12 builds, at least initially.
I want to address a lot of thoughts I've had with iOS in the past year, now that the experiment is over. (Note: From here on out, references to Android, are largely about Googlefied Android).
The Myth That The Apple Ecosystem Will Suck You In
Apple certainly does a lot to make sure their goods and services are first class citizens and the friction to interoperate with their ecosystem is reduced wherever possible.
However, Google is the one which will harass you with emails and notifications, if you've “Forgotten” to login to Google or will harass you if you do not have all their apps installed. Or will often reinstall their apps at upgrade time, or after the first round of Google play updates.
Meanwhile, iOS quietly respects all my decisions, save for offering a free trial of iCloud.
Apple's inter-product network strength might certainly be high. However, their other products and services really are not really pushed onto you, like Google.
iOS At Least Feels More Private By Default Than Android
Coming from Android and being concerned with privacy, seeing that pop up with the “Ask App Not To Track” option is kind of intoxicating/empowering. It's still however not clear to me it eliminates all tracking, though almost certainly a vast improvement on the android experience.
In general too on Android, proprietary apps are often free to harass you or stop working when entirely when you've denied them some permission. The norm on iOS seems to be to gracefully degrade the features.
Apple and Competing Apps or Services
A lot of hay is made with Apple banning competing apps, and maybe that still goes on. However, I find the fact that how they lock down apps running in the background is the real major impediment here, at least in the present. I went to make sure KDE Connect and NextCloud had apps in iOS before making the switch. I did, however, not realize how crippled KDE, Connect would be in practice.
NextCloud's photo upload function, often seemed to not work as expected, or take hours or days to work. Though righting itself instantly if the app was launched into the foreground.
The App Store's FLOSS App Tax
Apple requiring developers to charge $100 a year, in practice, kind of works against any developer who would otherwise give away apps for gratis floss-or-not. Especially if you are a solo developer with a smaller audience.
In practice, I found a lot of smaller FLOSS apps ended up charging $1.99 or the like, to help offset the expense. In general, my sense of this, made me think this was also contributing to a lack of FLOSS apps in general. Or weird situations where third parties would build paid wrappers for FLOSS apps. See SyncThing Mobius. Leading to scenarios where I would be paying someone who wasn't a developer of SyncThing for the privilege of running it.
I believed this to contribute to weird scenarios where things I expected to be able to acquire a type of app for free, or at least to be able to purchase as onetime payments, were actually being sold in the App Store as subscription services. See the ecosystem of VPN based add blockers.) Which contributed to an overall feeling of being “nickel and dimed.”
The Weird State of Ad-Blocking on iOS
Apple has come into modernity in some places. Letting people choose their default browser, for example. However, the official WebKit API on iOS to implement ad blocking is still locked to iOS. Many ad blockers exist in the App Store, but in practice they can only be used with Safari, unless they do some networking tomfoolery, such as act as VPNs.
This means in practice if you want ad blocking in a third party browser, the browser has to either implement its own ad blocking in the browser, else never having the feature. Firefox on iOS having no extensions, nor built in ad blocking is therefore set between a rock and a hard place. Despite using WebKit on iOS.
In general, fundamentally, iOS is a good proprietary OS. In a lot of ways I preferred its clean design, and in a lot of ways it's more respectful of user choices than proprietary Android.
At the end of the day, though, I need a phone day to day that is going to work with NextCloud right now, and I chafed strongly at the lack of KDE Connect. I also found myself often finding the ecosystem of FLOSS apps on iOS anemic compared to Android. These were my biggest drivers for leaving iOS.
I still desire a Google free option. For the moment, I find myself on a stock Samsung device, with all the Google apps disabled at the moment.