Still Gapp-less?

Trebuchet3

Back in July, I decided to go Google App-less, or gappless. Cold turkey. No baby steps, just quit using Google Apps on my phone. Of course, this is possible only with custom ROMs, and then I don’t install the Google Apps packages into those ROMs. I don’t want to belabor the point, but the one thing I want to say about going gappless is: I can’t even tell they’re gone.

I thought it would be a little inconvenient, or that it would be difficult to work with on a day to day basis, but the truth is, since going gappless, I don’t even notice a difference. Other than using a few different apps to do the exact same thing I was doing before, nothing has changed. Kind of makes me wonder what all those Google Apps were for anyways….

Truth be told, Google does make some great apps. But most of the time, even before going gappless, I wasn’t using them anyways. For instance, GMail is a great app, but I have multiple email accounts (because of work, etc.) and so I was using a different email app (librem, K-9, even AquaMail at one point) for all of my phone email needs.

The only big ticket item was the Play Store, which now I realize I can get just about any app (well, any app I ever needed) from F-Droid, Aptoid, or Amazon Apps. The other contender being Google Photos to store all of my pictures. Of course, if you’ve been around my blog a while, you’ve surely seen my home piwigo photo storage system, so I wasn’t using Google Photos either.

Overall, looking long term at my phone these past few months, my battery typically has a higher charge at the end of the day. Typically I was seeing around 60-65% at the end of the day, now I see about 70-80% when I get ready for bed. My data plan uses less data, usually in the 500 MB to 1 GB per month range over these past few months as well, which is a plus. Also, my phone uses about 200 MB ram to run during the day.

I’m actually not writing this to bash on Google or their apps. They actually work really well if you use them. I am writing this to answer that question that I’ve been asked dozens of times lately: “Are you still gappless? How’s that working out for you?” Truth is, yes, and I don’t even miss it.

Linux – keep it simple.

Going Gapp-Less, Again….

Trebuchet

Don’t worry, you can put the tinfoil hats away. That being said, I’m going Google App Less (gappless) again. A few years back, I tried to go gappless, and it was rather difficult. Everything seemed to be tied into Google somehow, and I just couldn’t make it with the limited number of apps available outside the Google Play Store. This time around, however, is a different story.

With my new Xperia XA2 Ultra, I decided to flash LineageOS 16 (android pie), but I also decided not to flash the Google Apps package (Gapps). So, my phone was complete, without any of Google’s apps, such as the Play Store, Gmail, Google Photos, etc. It’s not that I distrust Google. I’m just not sure if I trust them. So, I thought I’d see how well it works to go without them for a while.

The truth is: I haven’t even noticed they’re gone.

The big things that you need to replace though, if you don’t have Google’s apps, are gmail, app stores, calendar, and photo backup and sharing.

The first thing I did was use the Chromium browser (the open source front runner of Google Chrome, essentially, Chrome without Google’s additives), and downloaded F-Droid. This app “store” is a repository of free and open source apps.

I know what you’re thinking, but F-Droid has come a long, long way since it’s humble beginnings. There are a lot of high quality apps on there now, covering just about every major category. Not only are there tons of apps in it, they are all free and open source. F-Droid even has an update system that makes sure you keep your apps current!

qksms

From there I downloaded QKSMS for all of my texting needs. It’s one of the best texting apps out there, open or closed source! (I borrowed the above picture so as not to show you all of my contacts….) It’s high quality, open source, easy to use and very nice to look at.

I also downloaded Librem Mail to handle all of my emails and replace the Gmail app. It supports multiple accounts, works great with Gmail and other mail accounts (like SDF) and supports PGP encryption as well. I really like it. The color coding and unified inbox is great.

Of course, I also downloaded AndBible, an open source Bible reading app, and FOSS Browser for web surfing, and AsteroidOS’s app to sync to my LG Watch Urbane smart watch (running AsteroidOS). A chess clock app, and several games like frozen bubble. Amaze for file browsing, Android CUPS for printing, GetBack GPS and PocketMaps and SatStat for GPS navigation, and a few other odds and ends.

I needed a calendar replacement, and I tried several, but Simple Calendar is my favorite. It can import “.ics” extensions, which you can export from your old Google calendar online and put onto your phone. It’s not synced with my Google calendar, but that is what I was trying to avoid anyways. I’d show some pics, but I have a lot of work related things on my calendar that I can’t show here. But it supports customization for color. The author likes orange, but I prefer blue, and fortunately you can change the color scheme.

The other big elephant in the room is a replacement for the Google Photo app with unlimited storage, which is really, really hard to beat. This is actually what started my most recent kick to try going gappless, as there is now more information about how they process photos is becoming more interesting and complex. Actually, they were talking about it in 2015 and 2017. For this reason, I set up my own home server running Piwigo photo manager.

I know you probably think I’m crazy, but consider this: on my home server version of Piwigo, without any AI intelligence looking at my photos, each photo comes in with exif data, which can (and usually does) include stats for each photo, date, time, location, phone/camera taken with, aperture data, etc. Without even trying, on the exif data alone, Google *could* know your location, what kind of phone you have, etc.

Even without location enabled, the date/time stamp plus amount of sunlight can narrow down where in the world you are with little effort (I know, I used to navigate a submarine in the Navy, and we would use stars and sun position to double check our navigation equipment). Let alone if they actually look at the photo. They would know all your friends, who you are related to, what you like to eat, what kind of car you drive, etc.

Anyways, off the hobby horse.

So, after installing Piwigo on my home server (you can host them online at BlueHost or other places as well), I then installed a simple app called SyncTool from F-Droid which allows me to FTP sync my phone’s camera folder to my home computer. For all of this, you don’t actually need something like Piwigo, but it is nice that my wife and I can use the open source app (there are non open source ones too) or a web browser to view our photos or share them with friends.

So far, it’s worked out really, really well. Albeit, you would need to be a little more tech savvy to set this up yourself. Fortunately, you could host it places that will help you with that, but then you get back to cloud storage. At least with my home server, I know exactly who’s looking at my photos.

On the other hand, all you need is a USB cable to just copy your photos to your computer every now and then. Just saying.

You might be wondering though, what about that closed source app I really need/want? Well, I have a few of those, like Bluino Loader, and arduino tool for using your phone to program arduino devices through the OTG cable. Well, it’s not open source, and not in the F-droid repository. Fortunately for me, though, there is Aptoide.

Aptoide comes in two variants, full and lite. I use the “lite” version myself. It uses less bandwidth and works faster, in my opinion. Aptoide is a Google Play Store alternative. The apps in this store are scanned with several virus scanners to ensure a good clean product. I’ve never had any issues with it myself.

For the most part, with a few exceptions, any non-paid app you can find on the Play Store seems to be here in Aptoide. It seems like they download the latest versions from the Play Store and host them here. Users can also make their own app store to host their own apps. (I did that once before… probably an old post about it on here somewhere.)

It has an update function, and you can also search back for old versions of the software, which is handy, like going back to the version before they started putting adds in! I’m not sure if it is regulated quite as well as the Play Store, and certainly not as well as F-Droid, so be careful to make sure the file scans virus free.

Another alternative is Amazon’s app store, which hosts all the usual paid apps you might need. One thing to keep in mind, though, is many apps require Google’s services running in the background to work. Thus far, I haven’t had a single issue with any of the apps I installed, though, which you can see is quite a few of them. Maybe you should try going gappless….

Linux – keep it simple.

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.