About a month ago, I noted here my intention to work toward less ‘big tech’ in my life.
Over the years, I’ve invested in maintaining a few web properties, keeping up-to-date tooling, and building infrastructure for remote work. The assorted services (domain registrars, ISP services, Google Drive, GSuite, Office 365, etc..) amount to several thousand dollars spend each year. Ouch.
I’m hoping to reduce costs by consolidating but a big chunk of our costs lie in underutilized ISP services. Our prior strategy has been de-facto ‘Google everything’ – from e-mail to document storage. Despite paying for substantial IT infrastructure, we’ve let it sit largely unused.
While cost is a factor, our greater concern is the risk of all our digital eggs in the Google basket. Fin has joined along somewhat for the ride and its been interesting getting her takes on the ‘nerd’ solutions we’ve been using. We’ve talked on multiple occasions about our reliance on Google when the news covered how little they care about destroying someone’s online life, but only in an academic sense until recently.
The trend would likely have continued if not for Fin and I both experiencing some huge disruptions in our corporate issued personal surveillance devices (aka cell phones). We haven’t upgraded our phones for over 5 years at this point and first-gen 4G phones are no fun now that the 3G networks are shutting down.
After some research, it seemed like the best option for minimizing Google on the phone front was to start out buying a Google Pixel.
I’ve watched both LineageOS and GrapheneOS for a while, and hoped they’d expand out to better options. Unfortunately, the necessities of good cell connectivity won the waiting game. Running a custom Android ROM is the single biggest step toward ‘digital sovereignty’ an individual can take.
It also casts a very strong light on just how intertwined modern life is with a handful of tech companies. Every major use of our phones connected with Google and sent them data. Finding alternative cloud services is difficult. Especially if you intend to self-host.
After a couple weekends, I have a functional instance of NextCloud running on a dedicated host. At this point, I’m using it for little more than backing up photos. For e-mail, I’ve switched to mxroute. The combination has allowed me to cancel GSuite and Office 365 for Business. Instead of Google apps, I’m now using alternative Android solutions for photos and emails.
Actively deciding how my data will be hosted and what applications have access make me feel like I actually own my phone. Unfortunately, I don’t think this tech path is ‘sustainable’ for the mass market. NextCloud is already a maintenance nightmare, and the phone-side can best be described as “does many things google does but worse.”
For the curious, here’s the list of the apps I’m using on my phone:
- DAVx5 – synchronizes to NextCloud accounts ($5.99)
- FairEmail – ad supported, paid for ad-free ($5.99)
- Firefox – supporting the alternate browser ecosystem
- OpenBoard – the most passable keyboard I’ve found (through F-Droid)
- NextCloud applications – I’m basically only using the photo sync function
- Business Calendar Pro ($8.99) – there’s a free version with ads
- WeaWow – this is an amazing weather application
- jtxBoard – note taking app, I’ve not used much; but I’m investigating
- OpenCamera – camera; better than AOSP, flirts with being a ‘pro’ app – Fin loves the widget.
- Nova Launcher (ad free upgraded, but no really required)
One of the more interesting observations is that by avoiding Google’s solutions, I’ve found numerous small businesses making cool products. It reminds me of the days in the late 90’s / early 2000’s where the shareware scene offered a plethora of software packages (with wildly varying quality).
I think our biggest lesson far is to realize there’s time and effort involved in making these decisions. Building personal infrastructure is a process. Worse, it’s a process intentionally made difficult by large companies hoping to monopolize your life.