After almost a decade since my divorce from Apple, I find myself back with the brand, and it is all due to the stupid watch.
TL;DR: As a proponent of free software, I grouse at the “walled garden” approach Apple takes with its products, but after a long time of not using their products I find myself back in, mainly because free software missed the boat on mobile.
Back in 2011, I stopped using Apple products. This was for a variety of reasons, and for the most part I found that I could do quite well with open source alternatives.
My operating system of choice became Linux Mint. The desktop environment, Cinnamon, allowed me to get things done without getting in the way, and the Ubuntu base allowed me to easily interact with all my hardware. I got rid of my iMac and bought a workstation from System 76, and for a time things were good.
I sold my iPhone and bought an Android phone which was easier to interact with using Linux. While I didn’t have quite all of the functionality I had before, I had more than enough to do the things I needed to do.
But then I started to have issues with the privacy of my Android phone. I came across a page which displayed all of the data Google was collecting on me, which included every call, every text and every application I opened and how long I used it. Plus the stock Google phones started to ship with all of the Google Apps, many of which I didn’t use and they just took up space. While the base operating system of Android, the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), is open source, much of the software on a stock Android phone is very proprietary, with questionable motives behind gathering all of that data.
Then I started playing with different Android operating systems known as “Custom ROMs”. Since I was frequently installing the operating system on my phone I finally figured out that when Google asks “Would you like to improve your Android experience?”, and you say “yes”, that is when they start the heavy data collection. Opt-out and the phone still works, but even basic functionality such as storing your recent location searches in Google Maps goes away. Want to be able to go to a previous destination with one click? Give them all yer infos.
The Custom ROM world is a little odd. While there is nothing wrong with using software projects run by hobbyists, the level of support can be spotty at best. ROMs that at one time were heavily supported can quickly go quiet as maintainers get other interests or other handsets. For a long time I used OmniROM with a minimal install of Google Apps (with the “do not improve my Android experience” option) and it even worked with my Android Wear smartwatch from LG.
I really liked my smartwatch. It reminded me of when we started using two monitors with our desktops. Having things like notifications show up on my wrist was a lot easier to deal with than having to pull out and unlock my phone.
But all good things must come to an end. When Android Wear 2.0 came out they nerfed a lot of the functionality, requiring Android Assistant for even the most basic tasks (which of course requires the “improved” Android experience). I contacted LG and it wasn’t possible to downgrade, so I stopped wearing the watch.
Things got a little better when I discovered the CopperheadOS project. This was an effort out of Canada to create a highly secure handset based on AOSP. It was not possible (or at least very difficult) to install Google Apps on the device, so I ended up using free software from the F-Droid repository. For those times when I really needed a proprietary app I carried a second phone running stock Android. Clunky, I know, but I made it work.
Then CopperheadOS somewhat imploded. The technical lead on the project grew unhappy with the direction it was going and left in a dramatic fashion. I tried to explore other ROMs after that, but grew frustrated in that they didn’t “just work” like Copperhead did.
So I bought an iPhone X.
Apple had started to position themselves as a privacy focused company. While they still don’t encrypt information in iCloud, I use iCloud minimally so it isn’t that important to me. It didn’t take me too long to get used to iOS again, and I got an Apple Watch 3 to replace my no longer used Android Wear watch.
This was about the time the GDPR was passed in the EU, and in order to meet the disclosure requirements Apple set up a website where you could request all of the personal data they collected on you. Now I have been a modern Apple user since February of 2003 when I ordered a 12-inch Powerbook, so I expected it to be quite large.
It was 5MB, compressed.
The majority of that was a big JSON file with my health data collected from the watch. While I’m not happy that this data could be made available to third parties as it isn’t encrypted, it is a compromise I’m willing to make in order to have some health data. Now that Fitbit is owned by Google I feel way more secure with Apple holding on to it (plus I have no current plans to commit a murder).
The Apple Watch also supports contactless payments through Apple Pay. I was surprised at how addicted I became to the ease of paying for things with the watch. I was buying some medication for my dog when I noticed their unit took Apple Pay, and the vet came by and asked “Did you just Star Trek my cash register?”.
For many months I pretty much got by with using my iPhone and Apple Watch while still using open source for everything else. Then in July of last year I was involved in a bad car accident.
In kind of an ironic twist, at the time of the accident I was back to carrying two phones. The GrapheneOS project was created by one of the founders of Copperhead and I was once again thinking of ditching my iPhone.
I spent 33 nights in the hospital, and during that time I grew very attached to my iPhone and Watch. Since I was in a C-collar it made using a laptop difficult, so I ended up interacting with the outside world via my phone. Since I slept off and on most of the day, it was nice to get alerts on my watch that I could examine with a glance and either deal with or ignore and go back to sleep.
This level of integration made me wonder how things worked now on OSX, so I started playing with a Macbook we had in the office. I liked it so much I bought an iMac, and now I’m pretty much neck deep back in the Apple ecosystem.
The first thing I discovered is that there is a ton of open source software available on OSX, and I mainly access it through the Homebrew project. For example, I recently needed the Linux “watch” command and it wasn’t available on OSX. I simply typed “brew install watch” and had it within seconds.
The next major thing that changed for me was how integrated all my devices became. I was used to my Linux desktop not interacting with my phone, or my Kodi media server being separate from my smartwatch. I didn’t realize how convenient a higher level of integration could be.
For example, for Christmas I got an Apple TV. Last night we were watching Netflix through that device and when I picked up my iPhone I noticed that I could control the playback and see information such as time elapsed and time remaining for the program. This happened automatically without the need for me to configure anything. Also, if I have to enter in text, etc. on the Apple TV, I can use the iPhone as a keyboard.
I’ve even started to get into a little bit of home automation. I bought a “smart” outlet controller that works with Homekit. Now I don’t have the “Internet of Things”, instead I have the “LAN of Things” as I block Internet access for most of my IoT-type things such as cameras. Since the Apple TV acts as a hub I can still remotely control my devices even though I can’t reach them via the Internet. All of the interaction occurs through my iCloud account, so I don’t even have to poke a hole in my firewall. I can control this device from any of my computers, my iPhone or even my watch.
It’s pretty cool.
It really sucks that the free and open source community missed the boat on mobile. The flagship mobile open source project is AOSP, and that it heavily controlled by Google. While some brave projects are producing Linux-based phones, they have a long way to go to catch up with the two main consumer options: Apple and Google. For my piece of mind I’m going with Apple.
There are a couple of things Tim Cook could do to ease my conscience about my use of Apple products. The first would be to allow us the option of having greater control of the software we install on iOS. I would like to be able to install software outside of the App Store without having to jailbreak my device. The second would be to enable encryption on all the data stored in iCloud so that it can’t be accessed by any other party than the account holder. If they are truly serious about privacy it is the logical next step. I would assume the pressure from the government will be great to prevent that, but no other company is in a better position to defy them and do it anyway.