Back to the iPhone

Almost 11 years ago I wrote a blog post about selling my first generation iPhone. I was unhappy with it for two reasons. The first, pragmatic reason, was that interfacing with my Linux computer was more or less impossible. The second, more philosophical reason, was the closedness of the platform. I really didn’t like the fact that Apple had the final say in what I could run on my own device. After that I’ve used an OpenMoko, Nokia’s Linux-based N9 MeeGo phone, and various Android phones, including the Fairphone 1 and 2. Just a week ago I bought an iPhone again, an iPhone 8 refurbished by the Finnish company Swappie. So what has changed in those 11 years?

First, on the practical side, interfacing with Linux has gotten a bit better thanks to libimobiledevice maturing. At least I can backup my photos now, which is the main thing I need. Also, in the last decade, smart phones have become much more independent devices. We don’t need computers anymore to update and keep our phone synchronised. Most people rely on cloud services for synchronisation, and there are things like Nextcloud for us who don’t trust third parties to host their data.

What about my philosophical concerns? Apple and iOS certainly hasn’t changed a bit, it’s as closed as ever. The problem really is how the rest of the industry has changed.

Living outside the big two

I’ve basically tried to live outside the two big ecosystems, Apple and Google. Unfortunately this is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s world. There’s not a single killer, but more like death by a thousand cuts. Many conveniences, and even public services, increasingly rely on the ability to install apps from one of the major app stores. Many friends have been annoyed when they can’t pay money to me via one of the convenient apps, but have to do a regular bank transfer. The COVID-19 contact tracing app is another one that would be very nice to have, especially now as society is slowly opening up, yet there is still some risk of exposure. None of these are critical, but the inconveniences do add up day after day.

Why not Android?

OK, so why not Google’s Android if I’m going to pick one of the two major platforms? I’ve always liked Android because of its openness, in fact my previous phone was a Fairphone 2 running Fairphone Open, which is a version of Android minus the Google parts. Unfortunately the new Fairphone 3 no longer supports the Open variant. My suspicion is that this has something to do with the fact that Google is very aggressive about companies not offering non-Google versions of Android. Several unofficial community versions of Android do exist for Fairphone 3, but if I buy a new expensive phone I want to be sure that my operating system of choice is really supported for a long time. To be clear, I don’t blame Fairphone at all for this. I’m sure they have done their best given the circumstances and considering that the market for non-Google phones is probably miniscule.

Unfortunately, despite its origins, Google’s Android isn’t that open anymore. Google had been continuously moving previously open source parts into proprietary Google-branded versions, and third party apps are increasingly dependent on Google Play Services. Unfortunately Google seems to moving in the direction of trying to collect as much data as possible on its users (see my previous blog post on Surveillance capitalism). In fact, Google’s business model is to sell ads based on tracking people, they don’t make any money on Android directly. In contrast, Apple actually makes the majority of their money from selling actual hardware, and they at least appear to be taking privacy more seriously than Google. Of course, as Apple’s software is closed, we can only take their word for it, but nevertheless their incentives aren’t directly aligned with maximising the amount of data they collect on their users. In a market economy companies tend to act according to their market incentives, never mind what the PR message might happen to be.

What about wanting to control my own devices?

I still consider myself a supporter of free and open source software, however I feel that the fight for free software in the mobile space has essentially been lost. Fortunately, the situation on the desktop/laptop side looks much better. I’ve been a Linux-only user for over a decade and I haven’t had any similar issues as on the mobile side. In my (admittedly geeky) workplace, Linux is quite common, both on laptops and on servers.

Finally, my own interest in developing software for mobile devices has waned. I typically don’t use my phone that much, and I try to reduce my usage even further, as phone usage tends to degenerate into a purposeless mind numbing activity. I try to view the phone more like an appliance than a computer. The less “computing” I do with it, the closer this (admittedly fragile) view is to being true.

Being an activist, going against the grain, is exhausting. You have to pick your battles, and I think it’s time for me to move to another front.

Posted by Mats Sjöberg.

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