kena

The winds are turning

In lecture, reflection on October 23, 2013 at 01:10

The end scene of Mary Poppins sprang to mind as I began to write these lines: the wind turns, and it is time for Mary to leave. And so will I soon turn my back to Apple and Google as software providers.

My relationship with Apple is tumultuous and irregular. Of the early Macs, I remember only they were pleasant to watch and use but too expensive for my social class: I would only see and use them when visiting the rich kids. The relationship was totally off during the period 1994-2001. But by then, I had studied operating systems and I knew that something good had come out from NeXT in the form of a successful integration of Mach, OpenStep and DisplayPostscript. I was already fond of OpenStep because of the usability goodness of GNUstep and WindowMaker; and I was also very fond of FreeBSD because of the remarkably readable source code and trustworthy community. I was thus enthralled to learn in 2001 that Steve Jobs was reinventing MacOS using Mach, the FreeBSD userland, and a new OpenStep overlay that became the signature look-and-feel of OS X.

In 2004, my employer bought my first iBook G4. It was still expensive, and I would not have chosen it if I had to pay for it, but I was excited by the gloss, I was quite excited that most of the operating system was unix-like and open source, and I was very excited about the dent that Macs and OS X was making in the Intel/Microsoft hegemony. Also, I needed a new laptop and I wanted it small, and the iBook fit the bill.

The quality of the hardware was excellent, and the quality of the software environment, although not on-par with what was available with a plain FreeBSD or GNU/Linux for my needs (I worked as a software engineering), was good enough.

My relationship with Apple took a first dip when I figured that Apple was not playing nice with iTunes and promoting DRM. They relented since then, but the predatory pricing schemes were not pleasant to learn about. I gave up iTunes entirely as a result of this.

It also took a dip when they ditched IBM and the PowerPC processor line and went for Intel. I had liked the alternative architecture, and the pressure it put on software vendors to keep their stuff portable. But I figured it was a good sign of the quality of software engineering at Apple they were able to switch and keep PowerPC compatibility at the same time. So In June 2007, I bought my own MacBook.

It was weeks before the iPhone was announced.

I did not notice the iPhone at first. And then it started, slowly.

I watched iOS, which was not OS X: a different code base, very closed, very limited in comparison. To make applications portable between OS X and iOS, developers had to use the Apple SDK, using Apple-specific APIs, instead of open industry standards like POSIX and OpenGL. They were playing the card of vendor lock-in, and it was irritating.

I watched how large chunks of OS X were rewritten to leave the  open source model. Apple played the embrace, extend and extinguish card on the open source version of WebKit, the engine they took from KDE to make Safari.

I watched how software vendors like Growl saw their features copied directly in OS X, killing their revenue stream, without even an acknowledgement or buyout.

Apple was playing a dangerous game: the hardware was (still is) of excellent quality, and their system software was just good and open enough to appease people like me: free software developers, who are most vocal and key to decide whether a platform should strive or die. But meanwhile, they were playing dirty tricks to preserve total control over the OS X platform and exert monetary income from commercial application developers. It is a dangerous game because people like me are also affected, as users, by these dirty tricks.

The scale began to tip in Apple’s disfavour with OSX 10.7, codename Lion. They had decided to promote the Mac App Store as their main distribution channel for software, where applications had to be vetted by an opaque censorship process hidden in Apple’s headquarters.

I could not tolerate this in any way; and contrary to all previous OS X updates, this time I did not upgrade. The situation then become worse with OSX 10.8, or Mountain Lion, when Apple made it mandatory to use their internet service iCloud to manage software purchases, including DRM music and e-books: the number of copies was thus limited, and they were checking this centrally. Apple had learned well from Amazon, a company I despise for their predatory commercial practices, and I was majorly annoyed.

Then OSX 10.9 happened, with the strange name “Mavericks”.

They had given up on cat names!

More seriously, Apple has decided with 10.9 that they want all my passwords in their iCloud databases, somewhere away from my home and my country. This simply could not fly, and played as the proverbial last drop. I had decided a long time ago already that I would never support a company which actively destroys any expectation of privacy by their users, and this is thus where I am drawing the line.

I may still use Apple hardware in the future, but it will not be running OS X to provide my work environment; and this, for as long as the company persists with their current cultural strategy.

❦❦❦

The situation with Google is both more simple and more complicated.

It is more simple because I do not need Google for my everyday computing needs. I use Duck Duck Go for search, FastMail for e-mail, Firefox for browsing,  Feedly for reading the news and WordPress to write them. I also run my own XMPP server and Bitlbee to keep my chat away from Gmail and Hangouts.

My Google user account is void of significant identifying information; I take care of keeping Google away from my surfing habits, so they cannot exact value from my behavior; and I use ad blockers to avoid their main product. So far I have resisted the Google+ hype. In all intent and purpose, I consider that Google and I are mere casual acquaintances for my general purpose computing needs.

But Google is forcing my hand to change the nature of our relationship, and I do not like this. This is where it gets complicated: I want to use a mobile phone.

I have two specific reasons to use a mobile phone: to keep in contact with people for work (e-mail and chat) while on the go, and to avoid getting lost during my travels (maps and navigation). These specific uses require a mobile internet connection and a software platform rich enough to support e-mail, chat, maps and navigation.

Until 2008, I had counted on Nokia, but Nokia had missed the smartphone revolution and stayed stuck in the 1990’s until they went for Microsoft, which is still fundamentally a no-no for me.

In 2008 I went for HTC and Android, which at that time still seemed to be an open and refreshing alternative to the product offerings from Sony, Samsung, Apple and Microsoft.

But since then Android has changed. In particular, Google played the dirtiest, dirtiest trick in the book: they took the system management away from the hands of an open and user-controllable operating system, and placed it into an inscrutable black box, uncontrollable by users: Google Play Services. This brilliant article by Ars Technica explains what they did, why they did it, and the negative consequences this has for users and the Android platform.

Again, this is where I draw the line: I will not share my personal data (especially chat and e-mail) with a computing platform provided by a company that actively fights against my privacy needs.

For the time being, I have blocked Hangouts, Google Now and some inconveniences caused by Google Play Services using XPrivacy, a utility available for non-standard Android installations. But it hurts, as I can clearly see some programs fail to run properly as a result.

This situation is not acceptable and I am now actively looking for ways to sever my relationship with Google for my mobile needs.

❦❦❦

For work I am happy to still count on GNU/Linux and FreeBSD to provide me with a trustworthy environment. There may still be some political discussions to be had about which flavour of GNU/Linux I should dedicate my time to, since I am not entirely satisfied with the aims and goals of the Ubuntu project. However, and fortunately, these qualms are far more benign than my issues with Google and Apple.

For gaming, I am very excited about Valve’s upcoming SteamOS and Steam Machines. Thanks to Valve, I will stay able to kick Apple’s and Microsoft’s ass with open and transparent technology for the time being. The question remains of how long Valve will remain both trustworthy and in business, but I am optimistic for now.

For my mobile needs, unfortunately, I have not found a solution yet. This is both frustrating and irritating me as a human being, but more than all it itches.

The hacker itch.

❦❦❦

Both at work and in hobby time, I have started to study FPGAs and DIY microcontrollers and electronics.

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  1. Spot on, as usual. Btw, fastmail also runs their XMPP (FWIW).

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