I hope everyone has had a fantastic New Year. It’s 2021. All it has to do is be not-as-bad as 2020. I’m tepidly optimistic.
About a month ago, my Nokia 7.2 decided to install an update. This bothered me because I did pretty much everything in my power to get it to not-download updates, and then telling it to not-install updates it downloads…and yet, it did it anyway. This ruined root, which in turn caused an issue with booting, which then caused issues with Wi-Fi, and to this day the phone disconnects from the cellular network far more than it should.
When I got my OnePlus 8T+ 5G functionally-for-free as a result of shuffling around some things with my cellular plan, I decided that I would finally cut the umbilical cord and install a Google-free ROM. Turns out…that requires a lot more commitment than I thought…
Okay, so a bit of technical background here: Android is a smartphone operating system. It runs basically every smartphone that isn’t made by Apple. Basically every Android phone sold from a carrier ships with a suite of Google-centric software – from Gmail to the Play Store, Contacts, Assistant, Podcasts, Youtube and Chrome…basically all the apps that ship with the phone out of the box, are all tied to the Google ecosystem. Beneath that, though, is the Google Play Services – the underlying framework that helps third party apps work properly and share data between them. It’s how a third party phone dialer or texting app shows your contacts.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not generally a fan of that ecosystem. Many, many years ago, I started using a piece of software called Xprivacy. It allows the user to deny apps permissions to data on the phone. One of the ‘rites of passage’ when getting a new phone was applying permissions to system apps. One wrong move, and the system would get stuck in a boot loop, requiring me to start all over.
By default, Android will sync contacts from other accounts. By default, it will try and save passwords from other apps. By default, it will build a repertoire of keystrokes with its keyboard. By default, it will keep track of my location and how long I was at each place…and that’s just the stuff I know about. Trying to tell Google “just sell me apps from the Play Store and do literally nothing else” is quite the undertaking. Xprivacy gave me peace of mind for a while, but after this week-long ritual of feeling like I was disarming an IED wearing baseball mitts and still having my phone update without my knowledge or consent, it was time to acknowledge the reality: No matter how hard I try, a phone with Google Play Services is a phone that won’t ever give me peace of mind anymore.
Enter LineageOS, a third party build of Android. Specifically, it is fully Open Source, and it doesn’t include the Google Play Services, or include any Google applications at all. Given that this is the case, it’s entirely possible that I won’t need Xprivacy anymore – I use so few apps that the Android permissions model will likely be enough. We’ll see.
It took many, MANY attempts to finally get LineageOS on my phone, and rooted the way I like. Several days of forum posts and boot loops and botched attempts and nearly a dozen re-flash cycles made sure I was an expert at the process through sheer repetition. While I was happy to have a solid foundation, it simultaneously felt like I was leaving ‘home’ behind…and to an extent, I was. The absence of the Play Store meant that app acquisition would take on a different form. F-Droid has quickly become a favorite; it focuses on free and open source applications with its own set of warning labels. APKPure helps bridge a few of the gaps as well – WhatsApp and Instagram aren’t available through F-Droid for obvious reasons.
More notably, my app library would change. Leaving behind the Play Store means leaving behind dozens of purchases apps. It’s amazing how few of them I regularly use. Really, the only paid app I will truly miss is Swype; my use of the input software predates my use of Android itself. Years of muscle memory (especially regarding punctuation) will need to be rewritten. Leaving an app library behind isn’t easy, whether one moves from Android to iOS (or vice versa), or whether one chooses to work to leave Google behind in the underground Android ecosystem.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I got to this point. Trying to straddle the line of getting my phone to only use the Google software I wanted it to run has become an increasingly quixotic undertaking. Ill-content to acquire only some of my personal data, it seems that every iteration of Android consists of one-third pointless UI changes, one-third seemingly-useful improvements to its service apps like Gmail and Duo that I expressly work to uninstall, and one-third OS changes that raise the bar incrementally higher for people like me who would rather reduce their Google data footprint.
My choices seem to boil down to either surrender, take off my ‘tin foil hat’, realize that virtually all of my friends have far larger Google footprints than I do with seemingly no consequence and far less headache, and just operate under the assumption that nearly eight years of fighting has been a pointless, complete waste of time…or do just the opposite and give up every paid app and OEM enhancement to be free.
It’s obvious which one I chose. However, as I sit here waiting for my text messages to migrate, I can’t help but have a bit of an existential crisis as I wonder if I am the only casualty of this battle.