Going “Gapps-less” on my Android phone.

In a previous post (https://thealaskalinuxuser.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/aptoide-a-good-google-alternative/) I wrote about an alternative to Google Services/Google PlayStore, at the end of which, I came to this conclusion:

With a fairly polished web GUI and app GUI interface, Aptoide is a really good alternative for the Google Play Store. The question really is, can one live without Google Services?

I guess that really is what it comes down to. So, I decided to find out. For one work week, I have been completely Gapps-less. I started this venture by backing up (just in case) and then completely wiping my Samsung Galaxy S4 T-mobile phone. I then installed SlimLP, and proceeded to not install the Gapps package (the Google Apps package) and spent one work week without it.

The verdict: For the most part I can’t tell the difference. In fact, as of this writing, I have not re-installed the Google Services or Apps to my phone. I did learn a few things along the way, however, and I would like to share them here.

First, what does it mean to be “Gapps-less”? By being Gapps-less, we mean not installing Google Services Apps, which is a suite of apps that connects you to Google’s services, such as syncing, location saving, etc. This actually doesn’t mean that you cannot install any apps made by Google, but that you are not connected to it’s servers (we will break this down a bit more when we talk about Google Chrome). It does mean, however, that you would be prevented from using any app that specifically will not function without Google’s services, because you will not have it installed.

Second, why would someone want to be “Gapps-less”? Well, that is a good question. I am not a conspiracy theory man myself, but there are those who are inclined to believe that Google Services is actually a form of tracking device, from which your personal information and whereabouts are used by people of a baser sort. The idea has merit for several reasons. To save battery with Google’s location services, your phone tells Google’s servers where you are, and it records this information so that when one of your apps requests your location, Google’s servers provide it one to save you the battery power of starting up your built in GPS. Likewise, when you download an app from the PlayStore, Google’s services start profiling you and selects apps which it thinks you will like to your PlayStore screen, in hopes you will find a more amiable selection. Further, Google’s servers *may* read key words from your profile and emails to select which advertisements to show you. Finally, when you browse for a coffee shop, Google knows to show you coffee shops in your local area, because that is where you are.

In all of the above cases, one can clearly see the benefits of these services. I don’t want to see coffee shops in Paris, because I am not in Paris. Actually, I don’t drink coffee, so I really don’t want to see advertisements for coffee. I would rather see advertisements for hiking, which is why I am glad to see several outdoors type apps on my Google PlayStore home screen as suggested apps for me. It is convenient saving battery power when I am out and about, since Google just tells all my apps where I am. In all of this, one can also see how this trusted information may be abused. This legitimate fear drives some to the point of going Gapps-less.

So, what did I learn by going Gapps-less? Well, for the most part, nothing changed. Actually, only setting up my phone was a little more tedious than before, other than that, I can’t tell the difference.

Getting apps:
Aptoide was my new “go-to” app store. It actually seems to work just as well as the Google PlayStore, with a few exceptions. I tried both the lite and full versions of the Aptoide app, and both were pretty good, in different ways. If you go Gapps-less, I recommend that you download both of these apps, because when you want to save on data, the lite version is really handy. Overall, I found all but two of my “regular” apps on Aptoide, and found several new alternatives. Aptoide also has an Aptoide Apps Backup app that is pretty useful. You even have the option to set up your own Aptoide store, from which you organize some apps from your phone or Aptoide so other’s can download them as well. If you are curious to see which apps I used for this adventure, check out my app store at http://alaskalinuxuser.store.aptoide.com/ and find out for yourself which apps work well Gapps-less. Not all of my uploaded apps were accepted, for some reason, and I am looking into that.

Syncing all of my Contacts:
If you are setting up a brand new phone, and have no contacts saved already, then you just start adding contacts to your phone like normal. Since I was coming from a Gapps system, I already had dozens of contacts that I wanted added to my phone. So, note to the wise, if you have Gapps now, download an app like Backup Plus, and back up your contacts so you can restore them later. Using Backup Plus, I made a backup of my contacts prior to the switch, and after going Gapps-less, I used Backup Plus to bring them back to my phone.

Syncing from my Google Calendar:
Since I don’t have the play services installed, I could not get the calendar to sync, and thus all of my previously saved work and home events were not available on my Gapps-less device. It took me quite some time to find a work around. I tried several calendar apps which all claimed to be able to import “ics” files (the file type Google Calendar uses), but none of them worked. Then I found an app on Aptoide called Calendar Import-Export which solved my problem. From a web browser, I downloaded my Google Calendar’s ics file, and put that download in the sdcard folder. I then could import it with this app, and all of my events were then present.

Apps that say they require Google Services:
There are some apps that would download, but upon opening them, they would claim that they could not run because they did not have the required Google Services, or they would present a popup asking if you would like to install them. One such app is the Vudu app, which is an app for connecting to Vudu movies where you can purchase or rent movies and TV shows to watch on your devices. Our DVD player has Vudu services built in, but it has a very limited way to choose what you want to watch on it, so I have the app on my phone to make selecting appropriate movies or shows easier. Occasionally, the Vudu app will pop up a notice telling me that I need Google Services to use the Vudu app, and asks if I would like to install it. I always choose not too by pressing the back button, and the popup goes away. Even though the app says Google Services is required, the app seems fully functional without it. I can even watch purchased or rented Vudu media on my phone, despite not having Google’s services.

It may be that some apps just don’t have all of their features without Google’s services. Such is the case with the Chrome app. If you download the newest Chrome app, it will work without Google’s services. You will not have any of your desktop bookmarks, however, and you apparently can only open one tab at a time. Since I wanted a little more functionality, I downloaded a slightly older version of Chrome, which didn’t care and allowed for multiple tabs, as well as the option to import my bookmarks from a bookmarks file, which I downloaded from my computer, of course.

There were only two things that I could not find a good work around for, which I will list here:

  1. Paid or non-free apps. On the Google PlayStore, you can often buy a “pro” or “premium” app that has no adds, extended features, etc. This is also possible in Aptoide with in app purchasing, but only if the app designer set it up that way. ChompSMS, for instance, does have this feature built in, so you can purchase the add free license. Other apps, such as the Boot Animations app only checks the PlayStore to see if you have unlocked features or not. So if the app developer did not anticipate a Gapps-less user, the pro or premium version of the app may not be available.
  2. Online gaming. Some games allow for multi-player games, such as SMSGames, which is a gaming app that works through text messages. It works just fine. However, some games only allow multi-player through Google’s services. For games which only allow play through a Google Play account, I cannot find a way around having Google’s Play Services. There are tons of games, however, which use their own servers or other ways of initiating multi-player games. I also found that games which allow for local multi-player, such as Bluetooth or WiFi, seem to be unaffected by the lack of Google’s services, even if they claim they need them.

So, in conclusion, without Google Services, setting up your phone is a bit of a pain. Once your phone is set up, however, I could not tell the difference between having or not having Google Apps installed. So if you want to take the plunge into the free for all world by going “Gapps-less”, you may find that it wasn’t as big of a plunge as you thought.

Linux – Keep it simple.

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