Even back in the hay days of Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Blackberry’s fancy devices, Apple and Google had the smartphone monopoly. Combined these two represented about 95% of the smartphone economy. I’m guessing that now we’re closer to 99%. My naive self didn’t think much of that as a problem. Neither of apps needing to go through a rigorous approval process by these entities before we could get them. Don’t get me wrong, these processes are necessary to ensure that we enjoy quality apps. The process seems to achieve that result better on the Apple App Store than on the Play Store.
However, in the past few days, something terrifying happened. Following the craziness of what happened at the US Capitol the soon-to-be-former American president, Donald J. Trump, got banned off Facebook and Instagram. Then Twitter which considerably helped his meteoric rise to power issued a temporary ban followed by a permanent one. The reason cited involved “risks of violence” because of how his words can be interpreted on and off Twitter. If this is a good reason to ban someone off a platform, then anyone can be banned tomorrow. After these big players, a bunch of companies/services started throwing nonsense lifetime bans on the Donald like then Shopify, Spotify, Twitch and even League of Legends. There are more but I don’t feel like listing them all since it seems that every time I look away more appear.
While this was worrying enough, I thought it would stop there. Seemingly a bunch of conservative accounts, at least in the UK and the US, started disappearing. I have a tiny account but even I saw a loss of ten followers overnight. Obviously, this is nothing to the likes of @ZubyMusic that lost thousands over thousands of followers in a couple of days. Conservative and liberal figures started moving and encouraging their followers to join them on Parler.
But wait there’s more. As this happened, Apple and Google near-simultaneously banned the Parler app from their stores with Apple even planning a specific update to remove it from users’ phones. It’s unheard of and regardless of where you think you’re sitting politically, this should at least worry you. I always had faith that if you do the right thing these things won’t happen to you. That if some issue arises you get a chance to fight and discuss to figure something out. Parler isn’t getting that chance and it seems deeply unfair.
The excuse they use is that it’s a platform full of far-right monsters and other kinds of horrible people. Are there horrible people on Parler? Of course, there are horrible people there. You can find horrible everywhere if you look hard enough. Also, you will find amazing people like Zuby or Tulsi Gabbard there. It goes for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and so on, but these don’t get overnight lifetime bans. Did I mention how unjust that feels?
From there I started looking at alternatives to take some power back. Take back some control where I can, reclaim some of that privacy which gives them so much power. The first place to look was mobile apps like Signal to replace a WhatsApp which made headlines a few days ago due to its device requirements changing to collect more data from its users.
That’s where I realise I was thinking too small. Why stop at the apps I use, let’s go straight to change devices. This is where I start to look up smartphones which don’t run on Android nor iOS then more specifically open-source phones. I went through a few options but not many with current support.
Yesterday, I focused on two devices, the Librem 5 and the PinePhone. While the first one seems quite promising, I opted not to go for it as it is still quite expensive for a device still in its development phase. It costs 799$ for its default version and 1999$ for a version which is identical except the assembly line is the US of A. I like experimenting with devices but not for that much. Both devices offer security options with physical switches to WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular network, cameras and more. If you worry about someone spying you it’s a nice-to-have.
Eventually, I researched further on the PinePhone which seems more flexible for similar technical specifications. It costs only 149$ for the default version and 199$ for the “convergence” version which has higher specs, 2 to 3GB of RAM and 16 to 32GB of internal memory. Basically the same RAM spec as the Librem 5 and just below the iPhone 12 which has 4GB of RAM. As a bonus, they ship from Europe and the delivery time is of a couple of days.
After a few more hours researching, I decide to purchase the “convergence” model since I might as well try the best option available to give the PinePhone a fair shot while playing around with it. Obviously, since it is also still in development stages I do not intend to replace my iPhone as a daily driver just yet. But its open-source nature and the ability to install any operating system I like is a plus. On top of that, there is a developmental smartphone option available, I might give it a try later. While not ready for large distribution, it’s security first features and the sustainability aspect that Pine64 advertises are appealing.
Now onto the actual purchasing. On the payment screen, I realise that there are only two payment options. Paypal and Stripe. I thought I remembered hearing something about Paypal censoring conservative voices. How? By refusing to provide them with payment services or blocking payments altogether. You can build your own app for sure but it’s much harder to put together your own payment provider. One can hardly expect everyone to just build their own apps to reach their audience. It’s crazy talk and everyone sees through it.
Back to my search. At this point, I search through DuckDuckGo to find if Stripe or Paypal have any censorship complains. I do so in order to decide which I should use for my payment. To my displeasure, both are guilty of refusing services to more conservative actors.
For a moment, I feel like I should stop there and not get the phone at all. But since no other option is available I decide to continue after some hesitation. It does feel like a small price to pay to explore an option that could destroy that smartphone monopoly. I choose to use Stripe which I can use on a no strings attached basis, as opposed to Paypal. This temporary dilemma shows what’s wrong with monopolies in general.
While a bakery refusing to serve you is no big deal since bakeries are everywhere, one cannot simply find other options for important services. Social networks, smartphones, search services and so on. However, if a monopoly decides to block services to a part of the population due to ideas, we need to tear it down. The only way to do so is with an alternative. An open-source alternative might be the future, maybe the crazy bitcoin singers have the key to replacing payment providers monopolies. I’m riffing hard here but you get the gist.
Back to the PinePhone, I ordered it today and am looking forward to receiving it. However, I will not see it before mid to late January since it is a brand new line. The website says that the devices will starts shipping on January 17 but that the delivery speed is about two days.
Hopefully, this blog post will make you take a moment to think about what it means to face a monopoly. The biggest concern I address is on smartphone monopoly but we’re not safe from payment providers and even cloud hosting providers. If they decide it is the righteous thing to do, they will de-platform you too while still collecting your data of their devices you own. We need alternatives and my journey to find some is just beginning. Hopefully, you will hop along for the ride. I’ll see you next time.
Cover by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels