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« How Everything is Going to Shit | Main | Me, Cooking »

Escaping the Walled Garden

A few weeks ago, as my iPhone was doing its best to wake me up, it suddenly started vibrating constantly. After a few seconds the screen went black, but the vibration continued uninterrupted for nearly a minute before the phone seemingly shut down. It was six in the morning and I was in a hurry, so after trying and failing to turn it back on, I popped the SIM out, grabbed a Galaxy SII that was conveniently lying on my desk, got dressed and left for the train station.

I had recently read a few articles about how Apple kept its customers in "shackles", prisoners in a "jail made cool", so I figured this was a nice occasion to do a little experiment. I have used an iPhone as my primary smartphone since the day the 3G came out in Belgium. (I bought the Galaxy a few months ago for testing purposes but never really used it for anything personal.) Although I regularly use Windows and Linux, all my important info lives in Mac OS X. My contacts and calendars are in MobileMe/iCloud. My music is in iTunes. I am, in short, pretty much as reliant on the Apple ecosystem as it is possible to be.

Nursing my morning coffee in the train station, I wondered, How locked-in am I? If my iPhone really is dead, is my only realistic option to visit an Apple store and buy a new one? How painful would it be to move to Android right now, cold-turkey so to speak… Is that even possible without leaving much of my data on the other side of the fence?

I mentally went through the iOS apps I rely upon and started looking for equivalents on the Android Market. As my train was about to leave, the most pressing need was an audiobook. I found the Audible app, installed it, logged in, and before the train had fully pulled out of the station I was listening to Sex at Dawn, from right where I'd left it on my iPhone the day before. So far, so good, and it's nice that the Android Audible app lets you download full books on 3G — iOS will only do that over WiFi for some reason.

When I stepped out of the train 40 minutes later, I had access to all my emails as well as my accounts on foursquare, facebook, twitter, whatsapp, path, skype, squarespace, and doodle. I could get to all my files on dropbox, all my kindle books and the latest issue of the Economist. I'd found out that even SNCB and STIB (public transport operators for Belgium and Brussels respectively) had Android apps functionally equivalent to their iOS counterparts. All in all, I found only two sore points: OmniFocus and my bank's app were apparently iOS-only. Fine, I can live without these two.

I can't, however, live without my contacts and calendars. First I tried to find some kind of iCloud client for Android. Apple doesn't publish one, shame on them, but a few third-party apps claimed to do the trick. None of them really worked though: getting existing contacts and appointments to show up on the phone was easy, but adding data to iCloud from Android was not.

Eventually I figured out that if I was to escape Apple's clutches, I had to escape entirely, so I changed tack. I exported all my iCloud contacts and appointments in standard vCard/iCal format, then imported them all in a Google account that syncs to my phone. This took four minutes and works perfectly to this day.

The only thing missing from my new favorite smartphone was my music, and that had to wait until I got back home. Once there, I plugged the phone to my main computer where my iTunes library lives. I have thousands of songs, most of them ripped from my CDs plus quite a few bought from the iTunes Store. None of them are DRMed. I clic-and-dragged my "On the Go" playlist to a folder on the Samsung, went to fix dinner while the copy was going on, and when I got back I finally had a perfectly set up smartphone with everything I needed on it. The entire thing had taken perhaps two hours of my time, most of it on the train. I wonder if Eric S. Raymond seriously believes that Foxconn employees can find another job quicker than that.

This raises a serious question: when one can leave iOS behind in a couple hours taking all his important data with him, what is it that these people are talking about when they say Apple has its users "locked-in"? Granted, staying on Android would mean forgoing OmniFocus mobile, but it is hardly Apple's fault if Omni insists on developing exclusively for Apple platforms. All the money I spent on iOS apps would be forfeit, but that is always the case when one leaves a platform: your DS games don't magically become PSP games when you trade your Nintendo console for a Sony, and switching from Mac to Windows on the Desktop means buying all your apps again, even though both platforms are open. It is also impossible to play TV shows or Movies bought on iTunes on Android devices, but this is a case against DRM in general, not Apple. Anyway, I am unaware of any legal way to get hollywood movies without DRMs, so that particular wall doesn't seem to be of Apple's making.

In the meantime, while my iPhone turned out perfectly fine, I decided to stay with Android for a little while anyway. It has become quite a nice mobile OS, and it's time I get to know it better on a day-to-day basis. When and if I get tired of it, I can always move back.

How is it again that iPhone users surrender their freedom to Apple? Beats me.

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