It’s always the little things…

As I noted in my 2019 retrospective, I flip-flop regularly between just wanting things to be shiny and seamless, so I can get on with my work, and trying to ensure that my use of tech reflects my values.

What I’ve come to realise is that it’s very rarely the ‘big’ things these days that become dealbreakers for me. Fifteen to twenty years ago, I’d be prevented from using Linux on a daily basis on my laptop because of showstoppers such as like not being able to get wifi to work, or having an issue with a graphics card.

These days, those issues are largely fixed. The ‘problems’ are more like irritations that grow and grow until you can’t bear it any more.

Some examples:

  • You buy a lovely 4k monitor that ChromeOS recognises and works with out-of-the-box. Meanwhile, with Linux you have to learn about ‘fractional scaling’ and which versions of which desktop managers support it.
  • Your daughter’s tablet needs resetting, requiring a tool that’s only available for Windows machines (and won’t work via a VM).
  • The organisation you work for uses a particular video conferencing app that never seems to work as well on Linux as on other platforms.

Cumulatively, these suck hours of your time until you start questioning what it is that you’re actually achieving. Despite that, I’m running Linux on my laptop and desktop.

However, these issues pale into insignificance compared to trying to use Free Software on mobile devices. I’ve tried LineageOS, Ubuntu Touch, Sailfish OS… pretty much everything that’s compatible with the range of devices we own.

Again, the problem is always the constant irritation. But on mobile it’s a bigger deal that on laptop/desktop.

For example:

  • You use LineageOS, which is otherwise excellent, but doesn’t recognise the second camera on the back of your phone.
  • Use of many apps requires Google Play Services, which reports data back to Google on a constant basis.
  • Discoverability of apps via OSS marketplaces such as F-Droid is pretty abysmal.

All of this is without even mentioning the terrible UX that plagues many Free Software apps. It’s a sorry state of affairs, and one that needs looking at on a systemic level.

For example:

  • We use our smartphones to take photographs and expect those photos to be backed-up securely and to be available to us across our devices.
  • We want to be able to quickly send something we’ve found on our phones to our laptop.
  • We’d like to be able to stream music and video from our phone to nearby speakers.

This is all possible using Free Software with a combination of Nextcloud, Firefox, and Bluetooth, respectively. It’s just that it’s so much easier and, crucially, takes almost zero setup on Google and Apple devices.

I’d love to see a lot more money poured into Free Software to solve some of the problems I’ve outlined above. A lot of it is due to a combination of:

  1. The massive mismatch between the number of developers working on Free Software projects, compared to the number of designers.
  2. The increasing amount of vendor lock-in, and decreasing interest in standards of interoperability .
  3. Duplication of effort and fragmentation across the Free Software landscape. Some of this is political, some social, and some (to be quite honest) because of ignorance.

We can do a lot better than this. I’d like to help, but right now I have more problems and questions than I do answers.