Me and Android

Posted on Oct 27, 2021

I have a very weird relationship with Android. As a FOSS enthusiast as I am, using a Linux distro on my laptop with no proprietary software in it, when it comes to my phone… I just bow to whatever Google wants to do with my life, using a regular Googlified Android (+ manufacturer stuff)… and I like it? And my new phone, a Xiaomi 11T, has reinforced all of this and has made me think for days long about a couple of things.

Smartphones terrify me from a technical point of view. On a PC, I know how to manipulate UEFI variables, install a desktop OS, change components, etc. Smartphones? I don’t understand their boot process (I’ve tried many times), don’t ask me to open any one up, the OS offerings seem totally confusing to me, and I see flashing ROMs as a very high risk thing to do… as I just can’t afford bricking my phone, for personal reasons. In general, I don’t even follow the latest news on phones.

So, when it comes to smartphones, I’m almost like your regular non-techie user out there. OK, yeah, I’m fully aware of all the evils of the usual actors. But I feel totally helpless when it comes to anything related to this type of devices. And I’m a girl who codes in C. I can’t even imagine how regular, non-techie users feel over their devices; I find some aspects of managing Google Android devices to be really hard, namely system upgrades and how different layers of application installations interact with each other. Xiaomi is very, very confusing in that regard, with a propietary “app store” (Mi Store) you can uninstall, a separate System apps updater which is very confusing, a sort of reduced version of Mi Store called Mi Picks you can’t uninstall but doesn’t seem to do anything useful, the OTA upgrades system, and, of course, Google Play Store. And you want me to add F-Droid to that cocktail? No way!

But OnePlus wasn’t any better. The legendary Nexus 5 was a charm, but lacked in other departments.

However… using the phone is a charm. I’ve never used any iPhone, so I can’t talk about Apple. I know most iPhone users are usually pretty happy with their devices, though. What I absolutely adore of the daily (i.e. non-maintenance use) of a phone like mine is that everything is integrated. And yes, yes, I know… it’s all violating my privacy… I know… But it works! 😩

I’ve been suggested many times to try out LineageOS. I need Google Play Services though, because I need WhatsApp to work reliably. I know you can side-load Google stuff into LineageOS and similar ROMs, but… How is the integration? How is the UX? Is in Google’s hands to shut down non-certified installions of their apps? I should do my research, yes… but why should I?

And yes, I use sway on Wayland, on Arch Linux… My desktop system is basically hand-made… slowly tailored to my taste over time… and I’ve integrated most of its functioning. I know my system in and out and I know it doesn’t depend on any other third-party. I know there’s no risk if I do anything “weird” on it.

A smartphone?? Ugh…

So, I’ve been thinking… On my desktop, I basically created my own UX. I know my setup isn’t for everyone. GNOME Shell strives to provide non-techie users with a tightly integrated UX, following the steps of Apple in many ideas. I think they’re on the right track and people who complain about GNOME Shell being “limiting” are probably not the target audience for modern GNOME. There’s a sweet spot in UX where limiting the non-techie user’s ability to change things actually helps them use the system more efficiently, I feel. Of course tech-savvy users can always just build their own UX by assembling together many diverse pieces as they wish.

That’s why Google Android and iPhones are so, so, so succesful. And I remember very well that in the early days, Android was essentially Samsung. All other iterations of Android before version 5.0 were terrible, but Samsung had managed to create a very, very user-friendly version that helped the platform have a chance against the tightly integrated product from Apple.

Oh, did I say product?

That’s the key word I feel… I love that there are lots of people trying to reclaim privacy and security on smartphones… but… they should compete as products against Android manufacturers and against Apple. Even if I, a very competent Linux user, just looks away from what’s being offered from the FOSS side of things in smartphones because I feel they don’t match my needs… how will these projects appeal to a more general public? I know there are lots of users who have jumped boats… but… again, when it comes to smartphones, it’s like I had a second personality: I’m a total non-techie, so I see those projects very close to as a non-techie would. Not appealing, risky…1

This might be a slight detour… but I feel it’s necessary. In my opinion, Element, the Matrix client, is sort of doing things in a way I like. Their marketing is… more mainstream? They mention Matrix, but they try their best in promoting an IM client and selling a couple of services with some nice modern photos, a nice design… the app feels familiar to anyone who has used a modern IM platform… Most importantly, Element tries to promote Element, not Matrix. I know the XMPP crowd hates it precisely because of “lack of flexibility, the Element/Synapse mono-culture, it’s Electron, etc.” But hey, I’ve had total non-techie friends of mine start using it with no issues. Yeah, it’d be great to see hundreds of competing clients… But… Do users need those? Isn’t it maybe our developer mindset which makes us yearn for a myriad of projects…?

To appeal to the mainstream (if that’s what you want… if not, hey, look at the suckless crowd, who couldn’t care less about the mainstream), you need to understand the mainstream user…

I use my phone mostly as a distraction, as a way to stay connected, take some nice photos, have a couple of handy utility apps at hand when I’m out on the street… I feel most people use it the same way as I do. Telling me or any of my friends, “But it’s proprietary! It’s not respecting your privacy! Google/Apple are evil” is pointless… I feel my phone to be a convenient device which I like to be as convenient as possible… My desktop, instead, I want it to be as powerful, distraction-free, and oriented to coding as possible…

Different goals, different approaches, I guess? 😌

  1. It’s perceived risk. Please don’t send me any emails telling me that you use it with no troubles at all. ↩︎