Smartphones nowadays seem to have a "social" aspect, where people talk about which hardware and accessories they use, and which apps and services they rely on. I don't care so much about this as about my computer setup, but it seems that for most other people the opposite is true. Hence, this post describes the software part of my smartphone setup.
For reasons related to privacy, ethics, and ideology, I try to avoid proprietary software to the extent possible. Hence, my phone runs mostly free software (with exceptions, see below). This implies that my choice of apps to run on my phone is limited, which is part of the reason why my phone is a comparatively unimportant part of my general computing setup, and why this list of apps is short and easy to write. Other reasons why my phone is not important are:
- personal preference: I'd much rather use a computer with a real keyboard than a phone, and I often have a computer at hand.
- ethics: the phone ecosystem is much less open-source-friendly and much less privacy-friendly than the computer one (at least when you run Linux); on phones it takes way more effort to evade proprietary software, anti-features, tight integration with cloud services that I don't want, etc.;
- laziness: it's nevertheless clear that I should be doing more with this Internet-connected computer I always carry with me, even if it means I have to write my own software, but this would be a lot of work.
I have never tried non-Android smartphones. Apple and Microsoft smartphones are obviously a no-go in terms of freedom and privacy, but Firefox OS and Ubuntu phone look like decent options that I would need to investigate. For now, however, I use Android.
The precise operating system I use is CyanogenMod. There are multiple reasons. I prefer using a system which is (in principle) community-managed, and I prefer using one I installed myself rather than the default one (which I feel is more likely to come with anti-features). Further, CyanogenMod's slight power-user focus means that it sometimes includes some additional options and/or is less eager on hiding advanced settings to protect users against their own foolishness.1 The most important reason, however, is that I know no easier way to have a mostly open-source Android system without the proprietary Google applications. I do have a Google account for various reasons,2 but nothing I'd like to associate with my phone. Using CyanogenMod allows me to have an Android-system which is as Google-free as possible.3
A slight downside of this choice is that you cannot use some of the proprietary Google applications that have nice features even though they shouldn't in principle require a Google Account, e.g., the Google Maps app. Instead, I use the Web version, even though it is inferior. The major drawback, however, is that you cannot use the Google Play Store client. As it is not possible otherwise to download the APK packages of applications (even the freeware ones), it means you cannot install any of the Android apps which are only available on Play Store, i.e., a vast majority of them. No Google apps also means no Google Play Services, and even some apps available outside of the Play Store, e.g., TextSecure, cannot be used then because they require them (see, e.g., TextSecure's FAQ entry about this).
For many real-world services (banks, restaurants, cinemas, etc.), as "mobile apps" means "Android and iPhone", and as "Android" means "Google Play", this means that I cannot use their apps. This would not be a problem if such services had decent Web interfaces, but many of them spend most of their efforts polishing their closed apps rather than their websites, so it is sometimes annoying.
Another downside is that CyanogenMod still contains proprietary software and drivers, so it would be better to switch, e.g., to Replicant, but its support of my phone is not sufficient for me to consider it yet.
To install apps and keep them up-to-date, instead of the Google Play Store, I use F-Droid, a repository of apps which only includes free software.
The main drawbacks of F-Droid is that there are comparatively little applications available (1563 as of this writing, against 1.4 M on the Play Store), and that the interface is a bit primitive in some respects (e.g., apps are not downloaded in the background, apps must be manually updated one by one, etc.). The advantage is that there is only free software, and that the developers are serious about identifying anti-features, building apps without tracking or advertising libraries, etc. This saves me the effort of figuring out whether all those apps are ethical.
To display maps and compute routes when moving my body in the real world, I use OsmAnd, which relies on OpenStreetMap (OSM) data. OSM is a free map database which is the main open-source competitor to Google Maps. OsmAnd uses Android's feature to figure out the phone's location (using GPS, for instance), and it can either draw maps retrieved directly using an Internet connection, or it can draw them from offline OSM data downloaded beforehand, which requires no data connection. The offline feature is extremely useful abroad, where data is unreliable and prohibitively priced, and it is something that Google Maps does not always allow (for licensing reasons that don't exist with OSM).
Except the nicety of being usable offline, OsmAnd has a lot of drawbacks relative to the Google Maps app. The interface is ridiculously counter-intuitive. It is sometimes sluggish (especially when drawing the offline maps); this is quite legitimate as it's harder to decompress and draw maps than to just fetch them, but it seems like it could be improved (for instance, it doesn't seem to cache a lot of what is drawn). Offline routing is quite brittle. There is no public transportation routing, and of course no Street View. Also, addresses need to be input in a structured format, there is no good unstructured search.4
The reason why I use weechat is mostly because of this relay feature, to replace a former setup with irssi and the bip proxy which was unmaintained and had bugs. Still the result doesn't really work that well, and I can't really trust weechat to reconnect reliably whenever my data connection disappears and reappears. (In contrast with previous setups, however, this one has a crucial feature which isn't necessarily a given: when the Android client displays a message that I sent, then it has got the confirmation that the message was actually sent; it won't display my messages before sending them and then silently realize it cannot send them because it disconnected.)
I use ConnectBot as an SSH client to my various machines. I use it whenever I need to check something on the machines, be it searching mail archives with notmuch,5 administering mailing-lists with listadmin, anything really...
I also use ConnectBot to create SOCKS proxies, for various purposes: whenever I need to evade network restrictions; whenever I have the feeling that my data connection lags when opening new TCP connections but is usable otherwise; when I want to use Tor on my phone through one of my machines. Port forwards and SOCKS proxies can be configured by long-tapping hosts in ConnectBot.
I use K-9 mail to manage mail on my phone, accessing my account via IMAP. I use IMAP IDLE to get my mail when it arrives without having to refresh periodically. I haven't yet invested the time to support reading OpenPGP-encrypted mail on my phone.
When I'm abroad and data is expensive, I use a procmail filter to send myself an SMS for each incoming mail using my mobile provider Free's API. I pipe the mail through this script and then through an invocation of this script. This gives me the sender, subject, and the first few lines of the message. That way, I can at least read email in real-time for free, and punctually enable data when I want to get the full email, or reply to it.
I query Wikipedia very often, and I want to be able to do so when I have no Internet access, and to do it fast when data is too slow. For this, I use Aard Dict, with the French Wikipedia. (I would prefer the English one for most purposes, but it is too large, given that I also want to store music on my phone.) The dump is almost two years old, but it doesn't matter so much for most of what I need it for. Beyond their use when fact-checking, Wikipedia pages make for fairly interesting reading when bored.
I don't use yet version 2 of Aard Dict, because it hasn't been packaged for F-Droid yet. I'm not in a hurry, I'm quite satisfied with version 1.
Firefox Mobile and default browser
To browse the Internet, I use either the default browser or Firefox for Android. I'm not especially fond of either, especially their sluggishness, and their inexplicable habit of flushing pages after they have been downloaded, so that if there is no longer a data connection they can't be displayed anymore.
I need Firefox Mobile whenever I need to use a SOCKS proxy, because the default
browser doesn't seem to support it: configuring Firefox Mobile to use a SOCKS
proxy must be done via the
about:config page, with the following settings:
network.proxy.type. Conversely, I rely on the
default browser's tolerably functional feature to save pages for offline
Not that I'm not foolish, but with software that takes it for granted that you are stupid, you usually have little opportunity to become wiser. ↩
Google Map's search is extraordinarily good, with a brilliant ability to disambiguate between place names, addresses, search queries, and good tradeoffs between popular places and impopular but nearby places (depending on where the user is currently looking). I have the impression that this must be a major engineering achievement precisely because no one notices how hard it must have been to pull off. ↩
One day I'll write more about my email setup... ↩