Android without Google (ish)
Recently I was asked about my android phone setup where I don't have Google Play and yet seem to have no real issues with life without the Big G.
What prompted this ironically was a time where I actually did have an issue, but the fact that it is so rare is worthy of note, so have a note!
First, the hardware
I run a Poco 5G and this took some research as most handset manufacturers are refusing to unlock bootloaders and I want a relatively modern experience, not a slow ancient (in phone terms) device.
Poco is a sub-company of Xiaomi but it's easier to unlock them than some Xiaomi devices because they're a smaller company.
To unlock the phone required me to buy the phone, attach it to my PC, request unlock code, then put it back in it's box for 2 weeks. Yep, you read that right, they force a wait of 2 weeks to basically attempt to get you to use the phone the way they want you to. I persevered and continued 2 weeks later.
Then, the OS
I use LineageOS which is the successor to CyanogenMod which stopped being so open when they became a company and there was drama. Let's not go into that.
It is possible as with any custom “rom” to install the Gapps package, sign into a google account and everything work, but that's not my style. So no Gapps. Instead I use a project called MicroG.
Setting up MicroG can be a bit of a pain, and I can't really remember what I did to get it completely setup but once it's set up, it's solid.
What?! MicroG uses google servers!
Yep, that's an irritating fact of life. Almost anything that wants to send push messages to an android device without their app draining battery uses google servers, so you are a bit stuck here. I prefer that than a signed-in google account though, I can at least tell myself that it's harder to correlate that way. More on push later though.
It however doesn't use Google Maps or Play Services and instead reimplements these. There is a “fake store” app that you install and it uses OpenStreetmap for the mapping side of things.
Then I sideload using “Browser” (yep that's the AOSP browser right there) f-droid and we start installing apps.
And what apps would those be? f-droid only does open source, what about my bank, public transit etc.
Hold your horses, we're getting there. First, we get the opensource apps and set up the niceties like contacts and calendar sync.
- DAVx5 allows me to sync my contacts and calendar with my NextCloud account. I prefer to use this than the NextCloud app because it uses standards-driven stuff. I'm also used to doing it this way since in the early days OwnCloud didn't have an app.
- FairEmail – I use this because k9mail always had trouble with push notifications over IMAP and surprise surprise, I don't use Gmail on my phone (my legacy gmail address forwards to either my zoho or yunohost mailbox)
- FakeStore – as mentioned above, this is for allowing stuff to think it's installed by the Play Store.
- FFUpdater – this is an odd one, but it installs various browsers and keeps them updated – I use it for Bromite when I have to use “chrome”, Firefox Klar and Tor Browser.
- Molly – I use this signal fork, and to get it I had to add a separate repo to f-droid.
- NewPipe – a nice YouTube frontend that again, doesn't require a login.
- ntfy – This one rocks. I self-host an ntfy.sh server and my Tusky notifications go via this rather than google's servers – a growing standard called UnifiedPush enables this and it's worth checking out.
- OrganicMaps & OsmAnd~ – Organic is a lovely front-end to OpenStreetmap data, with routing and even transit routing built-in. It's really quite good. It will keep getting better I hope. I still have OsmAnd because whilst it's transit routing is slower and ostensibly worse, it does allow for more variations.
- QR Scanner (PFA) – this is a nice QRCode scanner that actually shows you the url before going to it.
- Telegram FOSS – yup, telegram is on f-droid.
- Tusky – I'm a fediverse fedizen and this is my preferred client.
- UntrackMe – This redirects links sent to me from twitter, reddit, youtube etc. to nitter, teddit, invidious etc. Really nice tbh.
Enough already, what about my banking app?
Okay, okay. The last app that I install from f-droid is the AuroraStore app. Until about a month ago it was perfect, but now, the search is somewhat broken. I might create a disposable gmail account to fix that. What it does is basically logged-out playstore.
If you have correctly set up microG – there's an app called microG Settings that is installed as part of flashing microG that has a handy Self-Check option – you're good to just install all the horrible tracker-filled software you want from play.
It even downloads the packages from google's servers – this is not ye olde skool “search apkpure.com and hope that it's the real apk”.
I have lots of things installed this way, and whilst they'll be full of trackers, some are actually necessary for my lifestyle.
- My banking apps – I have n26, tomorrow bank and revolut as backup banks in Germany, and they all “just work”.
- 1password – much as I love the company I doubt they will want an opensource client
- BVG Fahrinfo – the Berlin transit app, again, just works.
- Chwazi – this one is for the boardgamers, it's purely for choosing who goes first.
- DB Navigator – the German railways app, very nice to have for train travel without paper.
- FreeNow – Taxi app that works in Berlin with the real Taxis and has deals with Uber and other non-taxi rideshare drivers.
- Slack – yeah, kinda nice to have that.
- ÖBB tickets – again, I often use Vienna public transport. Just works.
Really, just works?
Okay, so the other day I had an issue where DB left me stranded in a town where FreeNow didn't have coverage so I had a bit of an emergency because there were no taxis and I didn't have Uber installed (still don't really know if it would have helped tbh). The search on Aurora wasn't working and I couldn't get it to trigger from the play store (which it can do, but google is trying to make it hard).
Whilst I was getting microg working, I did have trouble with the taxi app because it wasn't getting the mapping right and so would tell the taxi company I was a long way from where I was ordering and at the time they were not letting you order where your phone was not. That's a bad policy imo but also once I was getting green ticks throughout my MicroG settings, it's been glitch-free since.
Am I getting the best most privacy-respecting experience with zero hassle? No. Is it convenient enough for me, yes. Is it privacy-respecting enough for me, well, I want better, but for now, yes.
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