Android: Trying to break free
Though I generally am into privacy and trying to cut down on using Google services for these reasons, it’s also a somewhat pragmatic approach: Do you want to have a lot or even all of your “digital stuff” tied to one particular vendor? From a redundancy perspective, that seems a rather bad idea – especially if that vendor is as big as Google is (compared to you as an individual), and if you are using “gratis” services that do not come with some sort of contract or assured service levels that prevent that vendor from cutting you from these services virtually overnight.
Then again, looking closely into my usage patterns, I found that actually my dependency on Google services is extremely limited. Calendars, contacts and documents are kept in my NextCloud. My primary mail service is handled by the e-mail infrastructure that comes with my web hosting package. Google Mail is still in use here but mainly for things that are “public” – these days, mostly mailing-lists that require a subscription for posting and come with public archives anyway. For search, I’ve been mostly on StartPage and DuckDuckGo most of the time, fancying what Qwant does but acknowledging that they’re not “there” yet as a serious competitor for web search. Google Maps still and now pops up in a mobile browser, while I usually try gaining spatial information using HERE maps.
With all these services, there’s only one really substantial dependency left: Google Play on Android, as a means of accessing software, videos, books. Unlike all of Googles web services, this seems a much more complex task to address because a lot of the Android ecosystem is built around the presence of Play Store and the related services, and by design this is how software gets onto an Android device, especially paid software. While trying to tackle this dependency, there are some assumption I want to keep in mind up-front, given the limited set of apps on my device I really use and need.
First and foremost: In some cases, some of my app choices have been made years ago, also partially due to limitations of stock or libre Android apps back then. I’ll review and maybe re-choose wherever that is possible, trying of course to balance outcome and time spent on installing and playing with random apps in a meaningful way.
And: I want to keep “paid” applications where possible – after all, I paid them not just because they’re good but also because I want to support the developers for doing a good job. In days of talking about “surveillance capitalism“, I more and more tend to assume the fact of things being “gratis” as opposed to “libre” and the need for a sustainable, long-term funding of development and developers maybe even more important than “open” source code. As long as writing SoftwareLibre is a privilege, as long as for most people it takes a dayjob to pay bills to be able to write SoftwareLibre in their spare time, we haven’t solved this problem (and some others attached to it as well).
Finally, that’s also one reason why I rather do not want to use Aurora Store or some other inofficial frontend to Google Play. Asides being legally disputable, again it just focusses on pulling the “gratis” stuff out of Google Play, which also distorts the perspective on how apps in there work in a way: There are many paid applications (including some on these list) that feature advertisement and tracking in their “gratis” versions but not in the “paid” ones – and rather than complaining about these apps being polluted and privacy-hostile, a simple solution in many cases would be throwing a few €/$/… at the developers, support their living and get tracking-free tools to work with. Just slightly related, but definitely part of the problem.
So, here’s where I apparently am…
Recent Android releases have quite somewhat improved in many ways. My device has come to some age, and personally I now prefer things to be a bit more lean and decent so I don’t keep that many customizing or system tweaking apps around anymore. What’s left is this:
- Niagara Launcher Pro has been my go-to launcher for almost two years now. Straightforward, minimalist, simple to use, reasonably lightweight, and offers a bunch of smart features. Subscribed to Pro in late 2019, the Pro subscription requires Google Play for license verification (like for so many other tools). Opened an issue on their github page (the launcher itself is not FLOSS), maybe something happens there. As an alternative, KISS Launcher can be found in F-Droid, is SoftwareLibre and seems a viable alternative – and even better in some aspects because of its search feature.
- Titanium Backup is one of the oldest apps that has still survived on my device, something I pretty frequently use for both backing up and restoring all my apps while re-installing a custom ROM, moving apps over to a new / other device or just temporarily uninstalling some particular app to keep its configuration while saving some space on my internal storage. It’s a rather old-fashioned yet still powerfull app that is fully available for download and purchase outside Google Play, which is a great relief here: F-Droid has OAndBackupX which might become a replacement at some point, at the moment however it is nowhere near the stability or performance of Titanium Backup.
- Solid Explorer Pro as a file manager I started using at some point because of some arcane requirement I don’t remember. Recently, its main purpose was to keep WebDAV access to my NextCloud available while reducing the amount of installed apps – I need a file manager anyway so if it can handle WebDAV, why bother having the NextCloud app around? A current solution to check is using a lightweight file manager off F-Droid (like Material Files) for purely local stuff and the NextCloud client app again for WebDAV and file transfer stuff.
- This would also solve another issue, specifically KeePass2Android for password management. Bit more challenging otherwise. I’m using a kdbx file living on NextCloud, syncing to devices via WebDAV. The Google Play variant of KeePass2Android includes WebDAV sync with the application. The F-Droid version (as well as KeepassDX) doesn’t but requires a manual cloud sync or using the NextCloud sync app. With the setup described before, this will most likely work, still ist a bit weird to see those substantial differences in FLOSS applications between Google Play variants and its F-Droid counterparts.
- Bromite Browser (for most of social networks and web pages) is available in a custom F-Droid repository, so “check” here. No, I don’t want to discuss Fennec or Firefox now. 😉
Verdict: usable without any real show-stoppers. Still checking back with the developers whether Solid Explorer Pro works outside of Google Play while trying out the other apps, the rest is straightforward.
Personal communication and productivity
- Threema and Signal as my favorite means of messaging are both available outside Google Play.
- Telegram which I still keep around for some use cases is available on F-Droid. Check. The same goes for Element (which I am currently looking into) and Conversations (if I ever feel the desire to go back to XMPP on mobile devices). There’s just way too many different messengers out there at the moment.
- K9Mail for my personal mail communication still works reasonably well, the mail accounts I am using on my device all are IMAP and K9Mail has been doing that stable for quite a while.
- NextCloud Notes is on F-Droid with its full feature set. Check.
- Mobile Doc Scanner for, name says it all, scanning all sorts of documents using the smart phone camera is something I bought at reduced price a while ago. Neat for capturing text and forms of all sorts, but something I mostly use for quickly shooting, straightening and exporting to PDF. No heavy use. Will contact the developer and take a peek into Open Note Scanner (on F-Droid) which seems to have a similar goal in mind. OpenScan is available to F-Droid users via the IzzyDroid repository, needs some more time to play with it. First impressions: User interface is very straightforward and clean, output quality of scans is mediocre to poor, and the ways in the app to tweak that are rather limited. But maybe it’s a problem that can somehow be resolved.
- Tusky is what I use for the #fediverse. Available in F-Droid, has been so ever since I think.
- Yandex Translate so far used to be my go-to translation tool, mostly because it supports offline translation which comes in handy then and now. Unfortunately, the Yandex team (that responds pretty quickly to all sorts of inquiries) stated that running the app outside the Google Play infrastructure is impossible both for distribution reasons and because they apparently use some Google service APIs for things such as text-to-speech. Workaround, for now, could be using Yandex Translate in the browser. I haven’t found so far an up-to-date FLOSS replacement for that. Mitzuli seems to aim at doing something similar but hasn’t received updates in almost five years.
- Stakali is an Android client for the Shaarli selfhosted database-free bookmark manager. So far unsure whether there’s any way to get this installed and used outside of Google Play. Workaround is using the Shaarli web interface directly in the browser which works – with the drawback of having no offline support. Another alternative could be using the bookmarks feature provided by NextCould, but, here, the corresponding Android apps are still pretty … rudimentary. The Stakali deveveloper apparently is willing to investigate whether or not providing the app outside of Google Play is posssible, which really would be a great thing.
- Pdf Viewer Plus for, well, displaying PDF files is on F-Droid as well.
- Next to this, and an interesting case, is FBReader, a multiformat e-book reader I have adopted six or seven years ago when travelling with a bunch of ebooks on my (back then) rather small Android phone. Back then, this was a GPL licensed software, I merely bought the Pro version because I considered supporting the developer a good thing in this case as well. By now, there’s a standard and a paid Premium edition, the latter being available only via Google Play, and the app isn’t FLOSS anymore. Stating the web page: “Until release 2.7, FBReader source code was dual licensed: GPL and commercial. Unfortunately, GPL violations are a common thing. Since 2.7 the source code is only available for a fee”. Not good. Workaround in a Play-free world, for me, would be to use the standard edition; I haven’t found any FLOSS or non-Google ebook reader that has feature and usability parity with FBReader, and its F-Droid variant is severely outdated.
- OSMand+, the OpenStreetMaps app, is on F-Droid too. Navigation is something I don’t really need that often, and I also often catch myself using HERE, as described – or Google Maps in a private tab mostly because, well, despite all the privacy issues it unfortunately has the largest bunch of data available beyond roads and “traditional” map material. A question like “find me an ATM at most 15 minutes of walk from here” still can’t be easily answered using the other maps providers everywhere yet.
Verdict: usable. For this part of my mobile productivity and communication requirements on Android, Google Play is no blocker. Either all the apps I need are available via other channels, or it’s easy to get viable replacements for use cases that still exist. Not all cases are perfect, but the restrictions in convenience and usability are acceptable.
This is where it gets slightly rough. My corporate communication these days essentially relies upon two tools:
- ActiveSync on an on-prem Exchange server for communication. Security means prevent administration from exposing any other protocol (such as IMAP, SMTP, …). ActiveSync is the only channel available to the outside, and as of now I didn’t manage to find any mail client outside Google Play that supports this. In Play, I’m so far using Nine (paid version) for that purpose and am trying to get in touch with the devs to figure out whether they offer any way to download and use this app on devices not using Play Store. Workaround is to use the Outlook Web Access in Bromite, which works but not really a fun to use, not even talking about things such as missing notification, missing calendar integration, … .
- MS Teams. Official app is on Play store and there seems no other (legal?) way of downloading it. Still trying to figure out whether there is a browser access as a workaround, but this (if at all) seems even worse than using OWA.
Verdict: not usable. If you’re stuck with any of these tools, going without Google Play will not get you any further. (Note: I’m not about to discuss choosing Exchange or Teams here as … well, sometimes it’s your decision, sometimes it isn’t.)
- PowerAmp Pro. Another one of the oldest apps on my device, bought back then when most of the Android stock audio players were extremely limited in either format support or sound quality or both. The F-Droid store has some alternatives but PowerAmp Pro can still pretty much be recommended because of its purchase site that explicitely offers an mode that doesn’t depend on Google Play.
- AntennaPod that has become my favorite podcast player back then when I was still listening to podcasts while commuting or walking to work (back before Spring 2020 you know…) is in F-Droid. Check.
- ASR, in course of this trial, has been replaced by Audio Recorder off F-Droid. I do have that weird habit of randomly recording audio snippets of situations that somehow feel “close” or “moody” enough to remember, mostly during stormy winter days on the shores of the Baltic Sea. ASR back then was a good choice but doesn’t seem to work right anymore, and Audio Recorder more than just fits that not-that-heavy-use niche.
Verdict: usable. My main go-to apps aren’t tied to Google Play, and the one that is can easily be replaced.
Photography and visual creativity
Visual stuff, especially photography, is one of the top use cases for my mobile phone. I keep something close to 10k of pictures on an external SD card, with a modestly formal process of then and now cleaning up, backing them up via USB to a local hard drive and keeping the most important ones of each year printed in a photo book. I too do pollute the ‘net (Instagram, Flickr, pixelfed, mastodon and some other places) with random images as, ever since the first camera phones appeared, I was in love with the idea of “immediate imaging”, of capturing short moments of a current world and get into communication with like-minded individuals over how these worlds look and feel. The camera phone and software has drastically changed how photography works, and I whole-heartedly applaud and embrace that. Consequently, there’s quite some software on my phone relating to imaging and photography.
- OpenCamera has been my go-to camera app for quite a while now. Lean, fast, in a way dull and uninspiring but stable and usable. On F-Droid.
- F-Stop Gallery still seems the most powerful app for image management on Android. Supports tags, virtual folders and a whole load of other things. Pro depends on a key package, so far this is the only app that will (according to the developers) never be available outside of Google or Amazon app stores because of the way this license is being managed. That’s a bit sad but there are some replacements out there.
- Simple Gallery Pro could be the future image gallery on a non-Google world. There’s an interesting aspect about this one: The “Pro” version I bought on Google Play a while ago and the “Pro” version on F-Droid drastically differ when it comes to image and video editing. The Play variant, as the developer explained in an e-mail, apparently comes with a proprietary editor component for image and video that can only be shipped as part of a bigger application and isn’t open-source, so the F-Droid versions editor is a very rudimentary tool and a far cry from the “Play Pro” version. Which is utterly bad. Update: It seems the “Play Pro” variant is available as a download (apk, without automated updates of course) via github. That helps quite a bit.
- Flickr. I’m still a Flickr Pro customer, have been so for close to 15 years, and keep on paying them because, despite all the various issues they went through, I still believe their idea of offering a paid service that is funded exclusively by paid membership fees is exemplary for approaches how to fight ad- and tracking-backed “gratis” services – and seeing that Flickr, back then, received vast loads of bashing for daring to increase their fees speaks volumes on values like “freedom” and “free beer”. Unfortunately, Flickr, too, is not available so far outside Google Play. Still in touch with their support to see whether this is possible. For some use cases (except uploading, the last time I checked), the mobile browser version of the Flickr web could serve as a very rudimentary workaround.
- Snapseed, Vignette, 1998 Cam are some of the apps I use for image editing, with Snapseed (formerly by Nik Software, now owned by Google) eventually being the only current Google app that doesn’t contain any trackers. None of them seem available outside Google Play, with the exception of Vignette – in this case, the developer usually answers pretty fast and offers apk files for download as the app has no Google dependencies anyway.
- Finally, I run YouCut Video in a subscription Pro version mainly because it seemed the best balance in terms of price, application size and feature set, given I then and now mainly want to merge video clips, add some transitions, remove audio and stuff like that.
Verdict: unusable. If your profession or passion includes visual creativity on Android, then you’re out of luck and stuck with a very limited choice of tools after giving up on Google.
Oh well. Yes. Why not, because once in a while that’s part of life too. And because digital means of watching movies or listening to music has positive aspects to it too (like giving up on handling vast loads of physical media that need to be produced, transported, stored and ultimately, at some point, will unseen be discarded). How:
- NewPipe works for watching YouTube videos and music and is available in a custom F-Droid repository. Actually, the mobile browser does that well too.
- Zapp, the client app for most German public streaming TV services and their media repositories, doesn’t really need to be mentioned here – it’s been F-Droid-only ever since I can remember.
- Play Movies which I then and now used for movie rental, very obviously is something that won’t work without Google. I’m currently into replacing this with MagentaTV which technically seems to meet my needs and, in terms of media choice, seems to have a collection of a comparable size. Still unsure whether Magenta TV app works without Google Play Services though. At least from a content perspective this could also be a fix for the next candidate on that list:
- Netflix – requires Google Play and some Google services (probably DRM, as far as I could figure out by now) to work well. Mobile browser also is not an option. I’m generally more and more at odds with Netflix, though, also because it feels like having seen all the “interesting” stuff on there and being left with a bunch of boring blockbusters I don’t really care about while more and more often running into situations of empty result lists when searching for something special.
- Gaming is difficult. The Humble Store has a limited set of DRM-free games for download for the Android platform, and once in a while features those in name-your-price bundles. There’s a bunch of games in F-Droid, lots of them casual games, some are pretty good (like TowerJumper, Apple Flinger, Battle for Wesnoth or Tux Rider), some are mediocre, some extremely outdated. And, worst: An overwhelming load of them essentially are “clones” or remakes of old proprietary games. Asides that, it’s hard to really get gaming on Android outside Google Play, in example looking my beloved “The Room” series by fireproof games. I don’t want them for “gratis”, but for this case I’d really enjoy a means of being able to buy such games and support the people behind them in without being tied to Google Play or something similar.
- Chromecast obviously is another unsolvable issue. Sort of an early-days sin to get movie streaming to my mediocre TV set, nowadays something I’m heavily looking into how to replace – which seems quite a challenge if wanting to have a truly “open” solution. A more up-to-date Smart TV with network access would fix just the Chromecast symptome, not the privacy issues.
Verdict: not really usable. There are some use cases on that list that I’d either like to get rid of and workarounds for others, but generally this isn’t where “Android sans Google” shines. My half-baked and somewhat annoying workaround to that is simple: Use an older Android phone with a dedicated account, some apps and Google Play installed solely for the media streaming purposes. Gaming – is not solved in a good way so far.
Conclusions and notes
Overal outcome: Some light and some shadow, and a big black spot when it comes to imaging and video creation. Quite what was to be expected and still an insightful experiment. There are some aspects I consider interesting about that…
One core thing I see talking about games and movies: Here, the approach of “finding an open-source alternative to …” just doesn’t work or make sense. It’s easy and sane to find a good camera, calendar, mail client that’s “similar to <…> and libre”. But if looking at the latest David Lynch movie, the latest Neal Stephenson novel, the latest Fireproof game, the latest Oathbreaker album, I want that piece of craft and art, not a “clone” of it. I want that because I enjoy the creativity and ideas of the original creators, I want that because I want to support the particular people and human beings behind these works. This idea pretty much suffers from the absence of diverse, accepted distribution channels. There essentially is only Google Play if you want to get this kind of data to an Android device. Maybe Amazon, too, but one could argue whether that’s really a better solution. F-Droid is not an option here as it is focussed on software and specifically on “gratis/libre” software.
The latter aspect, as I learnt throughout this process while exchanging mails with various developers, also prevents “non-free/libre” developers from having an additional means of application distribution. You can go Google, Amazon or F-Droid. If for whichever reasons (third-party dependencies, business model, …) you cannot afford to make your application available in F-Droid, the only remaining idea is to provide people with a package download that is clumsy to handle, doesn’t support update notification or automated updates and, in many ways, seems a pretty bad way of handling software installation. There seem a very few “alternative” app stores like Aptoide, so far I am still into figuring out what they are capable of doing – and how they work without Google Play and the Play Services behind (another layer of dependency which I haven’t even been looking at, so far). If you’re looking for a go-to independent app store focussed on selling independent vendors software package, you’re lost.
In the end, while we often focus on the privacy and surveillance aspects or mere philosophical/political things such as “libre vs. proprietary”, the actual mess with this is elsewhere: (De-)Coupling. You can spend ages discussing whether funding development by selling licenses, software, downloads is or isn’t an “ethical” way to go. You can, too, get lost for quite a while discussing whether companies such as Netflix deserve “support” (as in “throwing money at them for their services”). The real badness on Android (and much likely iOS and iPhones too) is the environment of having yet another company I need to be a customer of in order to do so. I can’t be a Netflix, Soundcloud, Fireproof Games, whatever customer on Android without being forced to be a Google customer too. This kind of gate-keeping seems the actual issue, from my point of view – not even the Microsoft Windows world in all of its late-1990s proprietary ugliness was as locked-up and isolated as the current mobile operating systems. And this, too, is what keeps us from having a real bandwidth of providers, both Libre and proprietary, to choose from.
We’ll see. I’m currently spending some of my (limited) time trying to get an older Android device to run with a reasonably stable Lineage or some other custom ROM and completely without Google bits. On that, then, there’s the perspective of playing around with alternative app stores like Aptoide and see whether they work without Google Play, especially for things such as paid “Pro” versions. So far, this has been an interesting inventory into software and how I use it, it has caused a couple of beneficial changes to happen to my day-to-day driver. And … it has taken me quite some hours to dive through all this, test applications, engage in communication with developers, write it all down. Some things still left open, this seems hardly a process everyone can or will be willing to go, as long as there aren’t off-the-shelf solutions to that problem.