Open Source hyperbole


Towards the end of 2015, I got rid of Google Play Services on my Android phone by installing CyanogenMod and using the open source F-Droid app repository. As for my laptop, I gave my high-end MacBook Pro to my wife and started using a 2011 Lenovo ThinkPad X220 (after upgrading the SSD and RAM) with elementaryOS.

My first dalliance with Linux was in the late 1990s when I was a teenager. I can remember spending birthday/Christmas money on a thick Red Hat Linux book that came with a free CD at the back. I’ve tried different distributions on and off since then, but two things really made me want to switch to Linux full-time.

The first was becoming a consultant in April 2015. This means I’m (almost) entirely in control of which systems I use on a day-to-day basis. The second was a great article by Dan Gillmor entitled Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Apple, Google, and Microsoft. He talked about his line in the sand about using open source software on both his laptop and on his smartphone. I thought: if this guy can do it, then so can I!


The Linux side of things on my laptop has been remarkably straightforward. There are, of course, some great apps that I miss on my Mac, such as Keynote and iMovie. But overall, I quite like getting my hands dirty with the command line and not being locked down with proprietary software. I’ve found elementaryOS to be stable, great to look at, and without some of the glitches that have plagued my previous experiments with Linux. Give it a try!


On the other hand, trying to operate on a day-to-day basis without Google Play Services on my smartphone has been a bit of a disaster. It seemed to be going well initially. I had to forego my Sony Smartband SWR10 through which I’d achieved notification nirvana, but I was willing to make that sacrifice. The killer was realising that the Amazon Underground app store (where I was getting essential non-open-source apps) was potentially tracking me even more than Google.

Along with constant pop-ups on apps telling me that I needed to use Google Play Services, the sub-optimal user experience of the F-Droid store, living in calendar hell (I’m not going to constantly export/import .ics files ever again), I just felt like a second class citizen of the digital world.


Yesterday, not being in the best of moods anyway, I snapped. I read Dan Gillmor’s latest article, and realised that while it’s entirely possible to liberate your laptop, we’re hobbled by what Gillmor calls Apple and Google’s ‘duopoly’:

I also have to wonder how much it matters to declare independence on a personal computer, since computing is moving more and more onto mobile devices. Like it or not, Apple and Google have pretty much taken charge of those with the iOS and Android. Apple, as noted, is a relentless control freak. Even though Google gives away an open version of Android, more and more of the most essential pieces of that operating system are part of a highly proprietary software blob that still ties users into Google’s advertising-driven world.

So, in the interests of being a fully-functioning citizen of the world, Google Play Services are back on my phone. I’ve locked down my Google account to the fullest extent possible, only turning on location when I’m looking for directions via Maps. I still have the CyanogenMod privacy guard active, but I’m not sure to what extent Google can bypass that.

It’s a shitty situation, it really is. Yes, I could buy myself an iPhone. At this juncture, I’m sorely tempted to do so through my business. But that doesn’t really solve the problem – it just kicks it down the line for other people to solve. I’m frustrated, I really am.