The Hills Are Greener: Android’s Greater Mission

The Hills Are Greener: Android’s Greater Mission

May 6, 2013

One of the beautiful things about Android is how open it is for developers. It’s possible for anyone to make an app and put it out there to the world. One may say that the second part is true as well, but this has been difficult thanks to the regulations of the popular distribution mechanisms. However, there remains one big philosophical difference between the two platforms: Android allows unapproved software to live, Apple does not.

The thing that reminded me of this was learning of the existence of a store called F-Droid. Does the world need another app store? Probably not in most cases, but this store’s hook is interesting: it’s all free and open source software. There’s a wide variety of apps, many of which are on popular stores like Google Play as well, but their featuring here is in support of a greater mission. The store has limited regulations, largely regarding the open source nature of projects and the privacy of the data that apps should use.

fdroid-135Is this store going to change the world? No, and it doesn’t have to. It just has to exist as a way of showing that apps that believe in the free distribution of software can exist on a platform built on those principles. Google may have their own restrictions and regulations for Google Play, some of which are solely self-serving, but ultimately, their decisions are always tinged with the ultimate reminder that “just because we reject something, doesn’t mean it can’t exist.”

This is the thing that has always annoyed me about Apple’s policies. They take many steps to remove apps that they disapprove of either due to silly policy reasons, or even due to outright censorship. Now, when Google rejects an app, it’s not the end. On Apple, it very much is so. Jailbreaking is not an acceptable alternative when Apple goes to such lengths to shut it down. The culture has also led to that scene to be as much about going against what Apple wants rather than just as a way to openly distribute software in alternative ways.

Such is the thing that annoys me about iOS. Apple’s OS is so patently against openness that it gives me pause. It’s all in the name of making the OS work in the way Apple wants, but surely there has to be a balance between that and having a platform that ultimately serves a greater good? Android’s openness, part of its very nature, means that it will likely be the OS, or at least spearheading a greater Linux movement, to be part of many different technologies. Our appliances, wearable technologies, people can make them smart with free software and while Google’s track record is not perfect in this respect it’s light years ahead of what Apple does and continues to do. Apple is out to make Apple and their products better. Google is looking to do that as well, but even as just a byproduct of their mission with Android, they’re promoting something greater.

The Hills Are Greener: Hack Me This, Hack Me That

The Hills Are Greener: Hack Me This, Hack Me That

Jun 13, 2011

While I have long since sworn off jailbreaking as an unnecessary hassle on my iOS devices, I still try to keep tabs on the scene; after all, interesting things do come out of it. As well, there’s plenty of drama to go around; infamous Sony hacker Geohot was tooling around with hacking and causing drama in the iOS scene long before he incurred Sony’s wrath. While the Android scene lacks any kind of major personalities beyond maybe Cyanogen of CyanogenMod, the two scenes do actually share some similarities in their ultimate goals; even if the paths they take there are divergent.

On iOS, the hacking community ultimately serves two purposes: the first is to really just stick it in Apple’s craw. Jailbreakers are at perpetual war with Apple and their security measures. So far, the jailbreak scene has a lot of notches in their belt versus iOS security – only the iPad 2 remains unjailbroken, though it has been in the works. Even iOS 5 has been claimed to be jailbroken and untethered; the value of publicly even hinting at this while the OS is still in beta seems to fall somewhere between merely ill-advised and completely stupid. There are plenty of people out there who love Apple’s devices; their thoughts on Apple’s software policies are another.

Secondly, these hackers and jailbreak users also serve as essentially the beta testers for the future of iOS; major features of the OS have been created in the form of jailbreak extensions dating all the way back to iPhone OS 1. The the new notification bar? Stolen from Android, yes, but implemented by Notified as well. Folders were done by jailbreak developers long before they were an official iOS feature. Using the volume button to take a picture has been done by jailbreak extensions as well. Music apps multitasking had been done by Music Controls. Heck, even the whole app store concept had been done by jailbreak developers long before Apple’s solution.

The Android hacking community has similar goals, but have found more acceptance from the hardware community, at least recently. Users have been requesting unlocked bootloaders more and more from hardware manufacturers, and they are beginning to acqueisce even more. In what is maybe the most pertinent example fo the acceptance of Android’s hacker community, a CyanogenMod developer was given a Galaxy S II phone by Samsung themselves with the goal of getting CyanogenMod running on it. There is a value in the hacking community, and making their phones attractive to power users. Plus, it’s quite apparent that users are doing these things already.

Still, the parallels must be noted that both communities are all about trying to exceed what the manufacturers of these devices are willing to offer, in order to unlock the full potential of these powerful devices. The manufacturers also seem to be begrudgingly accepting these communities, and willing to use the innovations and features that they develop for their own benefit. We’re not so different after all.

The Hills Are Greener: Getting to the Root of Jailbreaking

The Hills Are Greener: Getting to the Root of Jailbreaking

May 2, 2011

Jailbreaking is the iOS scene’s most open secret – because Apple restricts what apps can do, hackers have been trying to break into Apple’s walled garden with much success over the last several years. They have often succeeded in providing functions that Apple either would not provide, or would later provide officially. Copy and paste, multitasking, even the very idea of running apps on an iOS device period were all the dominion of jailbreakers befotre Apple ever implemented them for regular iOS users.

However, nowadays, I tell people to not jailbreak. First off, it generally leads to decreased performance because to get a lot of these new features, you have to run a lot of new processes in the background. The problem is that a lot of these new functions rely on an extension called MobileSubstrate to operate in the first place, and running it leads to new glitches, particularly as it conflicts with other, ‘official’ processes. MobileSubstrate is an unavoidable part of jailbreak life, though, as practically everything useful requires it. So, jailbreaking becomes a decision between whether you want a phone with increased functionality, or a phone that runs clean and stable.

Rooting, however, is often the exact opposite situation – it can be invaluable in improving the experience of your phone. Granted, Android is set up in a way that allows for even official apps to have functionality far beyond whatever an App Store app could ever hope to have, so rooting is less necessary from a general usability perspective. You have the ability to easily clear out background processes on Android, whereas it’s much harder for a stock iOS device because of Apple’s restrictions. iOS users may claim task managers and closing out background apps is unnecessary – but odds are that everyone has had to reboot their device or clear out apps in your multitasking bar to get your device running smoother. It’s still a part of an iOS user’s life, Apple just likes to hide it, and make it more difficult than Android does.

Rooting pretty much does exactly what jailbreaking does, which is to open up your file system entirely, but it tends to do less on the surface than what jailbreaking does. One of the big advantages of rooting is that it is a lot easier to take screenshots on the device, especially with an app like ShootMe, which also lets you record screencasts. It also becomes far easier to backup and restore your apps’ data, and you can save it yourself, without having to suffer through the tyranny that is iTunes. There are other functions that become available, but not a lot of them are designed for everyday usage, they’re generally ones that are locked away to developers for good reason. For example, you probably don’t want random apps having the ability to take pictures, as they could theoretically take pictures of your sensitive data like passwords and send it to remote servers, for example. It’s good that functions like that are locked away unless you specifically allow them (and the app Superuser does a great job at allowing you to allow/deny apps that want to use root functions). But really, the biggest advantage to rooting? Why, it’s custom roms.

Granted, most custom roms wouldn’t be necessary if the phone manufacturers were competent software developers, but their skills lay more in the side of hardware than they do in making user software, and it shows. Who here actually likes Samsung’s TouchWiz software? Show of hands? However, even Google’s Nexus devices, which are as close to a pure Google Android experience as you will get, still have custom roms available for them. This is because of the fact that developers have created great tricks to make your phone go faster than ever, and do more than they could. They implement a variety of new lock screen options, lag fixes, overclocking options, expanded audio options, and more. As well, you get to not have to put up with the frustrating built-in apps that phone manufacturers often install and are difficult to remove. There is no tradeoff of functionality for performance with rooting and custom rom installation – you get both, with only the drawback of a lost warranty and the slim possibility that you could mess your phone up, of course.

The beauty of it is that the experience is largely quick and hassle-free: while you have to generally wipe and restore your data to install a new rom, backing up with Titanium Backup is relatively painless, and makes getting back to a usable state very easy, or at least far easier than iOS and iTunes make it. Even when I messed up on a custom rom installation one night, where everything was crashing to a point where I couldn’t actually do anything (as I misread some instructions on what to do), getting into the custom recovery menu and wiping out all the now-unusable data on my phone was easy. All I really lost that was unrecoverable (because I didn’t backup anything beforehand) was some game progress that I lost, and there was admittedly nothing I would lose sleep over, and I knew it was my fault for having not backed up in the first place. So, be patient and always backup!

However, starting clean was a good idea – I did have a lot of useless apps that were just taking up space and running in the background occasionally. Oh, and redownloading my apps from the Android Market was easy, as I could just log back in with my Google Account, go to the Market, and see all the apps that I had purchased. I didn’t lose any of my data on my internal SD card, either – so all my music and pictures were safe. You try this with iTunes, and you’ll be waiting forever for everything to get reinstalled and resynchronized on your device. Messing around with Android is far quicker than iOS could ever hope to be.

It helps that you have access to your phone’s files directly, and not have to go through iTunes much like how iOS users have to do. You’re never really free of it – while you can avoid it for activating your device, you either have to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid transferring media to or from it, and if you want to legitimately install apps, then you absolutely have to use it. I’ll cover why iTunes is so bad in a future post, but jailbreaking really doesn’t set iOS users free from iOS’ real biggest problem. Everything with Android can be managed from the device itself, or from any computer with USB file access. You don’t have to worry about using a clunky program to manage your data. It’s fitting that Android, even when getting into the dirty nitty-gritty parts of it, is still more user-friendly than even iOS is.

If you’re interested in taking part in the rooting and custom rom scene, I recommend either giving Google a whirl, or checking out the forums at XDA-Developers – there are more custom roms, themes, and other things to make your phone look and behave the way you want it to. The scene seems to be more free of drama than the iOS jailbreaking scene, in part because there are so many Android devices available that it’s hard for just one developer to get out ahead of the crowd. There’s Cyanogen and the CyanogenMod roms, and some pushback against the rom’s popularity, but it’s small peanuts compared to any of the notable personality conflicts in the iOS jailbreaking scene. And in part because of the relative lack of drama, and the improvements you gain, rooting and installing custom roms is extremely worth it for Android users.