Chris Wiegman

Leaving Big Tech Ecosystems Behind

Leaving big tech ecosystems behind

For the last 5 months I’ve finally been working on the 2nd phase of a project I started back in 2017 with my switch away from the iPhone. Some would call it “de-Googling,” some would call it switching ecosystems but I prefer to go back to calling it what I set out to do in the beginning. Rather than leaving any one company, I’m simply doing by best at leaving big tech behind all-together. I’m not doing this because of any big conspiracy or political motivation, nor am I doing it to hide from the world or anything like that. Instead I’m doing it simply because it is the right thing for me.

Why leave big tech behind?

If I’m being honest I can’t deny just how easy a tech ecosystem is. Whether Google or Apple everything really does work well together and is easy to setup. For a long time, at least back to the 90s anyway, this type of simplicity was my ultimate goal. At first I just wanted to finish work on one computer and pick it up on another. As time went on this, of course, extended first to my phone and then my tablet where it all finally started to come together in the Apple ecosystem. I could work on a document on my computer, pick it up later on my iPad and, finally, review it on my phone when the situation called for it. It seemed perfect.

The problem is convenience has a price, a few prices actually. First, at least with Apple, is the direct cost of Apple hardware and services. Going back to 2012 it seemed worth it as Apple had the only really mature ecosystem and the hardware was top notch. Fast forward a few years though and, while the ecosystem has stayed relatively steady, they no longer have the best hardware, even as the price has gone even higher. My last personal Mac was a 2016 15” MBP with touchbar and all the other bells and whistles and it was a piece of junk for the bargain price of around $3,000. Lock-in, in my opinion, has made us complacent where we will still buy these machines simply because we think they’re the only things we can work with.

While the direct cost of an ecosystem is high, I can’t deny that I have been privileged enough that it hasn’t historically been a problem for me. In my case, the cost I worry more about is the ownership of my data. There are many stories of people having their lives cut out from under them for running afoul of a policy with a big tech company. Imagine turning on your computer one morning and finding out you could no longer get into your email or documents or even your phone or other data. As we consolidate more of our data in these ecosystems that threat is real and even backups can’t alleviate all of it. What good is your Google Doc without a Google account or your Apple email address if you no longer have an Apple account? Think it’s far fetched? It isn’t. Spend a few minutes searching the web and you’ll find countless stories of it happening to all kinds of people, some of which to no fault of their own. Escaping big tech means escaping these data traps. Sure, a service might still be shut out but now any single service, with few exceptions, is something I can work still work around. Email host locks me out? Just redirect my domain to another one. There are few things that would be a disaster for me as would losing all of it in one shot. In the financial world it’s called diversification. The fact that more people don’t do it with their digital lives is truly a frightening thing.

Beyond price and data ownership there is privacy. Depending on who you believe the Apple ecosystem might be better here than Google, at least for now, but it doesn’t change the profile each are making on you with the data collected. Our communications, browsing, physical location and more can be a powerful weapon against us when put together. I’m not talking about ads for products either. I’m talking about how the constant exposure to the algorithms used by big tech can change our behavior in ways few of us really understand. Take, for example, one of the most popular ways nearly all of us have experienced this over the last few years, politics. I know few who haven’t fought online with a family member or someone else over politics. It’s real and it hurts when someone we’ve known our whole lives suddenly cuts us out of theirs because we didn’t vote for the right person. This polarization didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was driven by algorithms looking for and amplifying base beliefs to a point that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. Politics isn’t the only way this manifests either. From insurance to purchasing and more our profiles are being used to decide what we get, how much we pay for it and how we use the products and services we interact with every day. I know many people who think that the manipulation doesn’t affect them. They’re wrong. It affects each and every one of us. The sooner we, as a society, can properly respond to that the better off we’ll all be.

Finally, there’s simply the desire to support more independent and FOSS projects. While I believe in open source software, I’m not a purist. That said, for years I’ve gravitated to the default options offered by Microsoft, Apple or Google simply because they were easy, even if they weren’t the best tools for the job. There are so many alternatives build by people for whom your support both financially and in other ways really matters. I’ve made my career in this world for almost 10 years with WordPress and now it’s time for me to start exploring what this same world can do for me in other areas.

Stage 1: Breaking out of the Apple Ecosystem

While Apple wasn’t my first deep dive into an ecosystem, by the end of 2017, it had been the most complete. Everything was Apple. We each had Macs, iPads, iPhones and Apple Watches connected with a Time Capsule. We watched TV on an Apple TV and listened to music with Apple Music transmitted throughout the house using a number of Apple Airport Express routers connected to our speakers. On my devices I had forgone everything I could in favor of the simplicity of Apple’s apps too. Safari, iWork, Mail, Reminders, Notes… I used it all as it was just “easy.”

This all seemed to be OK for a while but around 2016 the cracks in this system were starting to show. Not only were the new Macs garbage but some of the accessories such as the Magic Keyboard and others weren’t much better. I think I replaced three Magic keyboards in just two years which, at more than $100 a pop, was hard to swallow.

The first to go was my phone. Ironically, perhaps, I didn’t dump my iPhone because it was Apple, I did it because the phone service we had, AT&T, simply didn’t often work around our house. Thanks to the opening of Google Fi to GSuite accounts, I switched us to that which required us, at the time, to get Google’s Pixel phones.

At this point I Finally realized that not being all Apple wasn’t a bad thing and the race was on. By Sep 2018 the only Apple device I had left was my work-issued Mac. Joy still has a personal Mac and iPad as they work for her but all my own devices had been replaced. There was a catch though, software. Out of pure convenience I wound up replacing the Apple ecosystem with Google’s and, by April of this year, we had everything from Google Home Minis and Google Wi-fi running pretty much all Google services and software on all our devices. We had simply traded one silo for another and it wasn’t a great idea.

Stage 2: Breaking out of the Google Ecosystem

We were hooked on Google. From our phones to domain names, email, browser and more my entire digital life resided on Google’s servers and that wasn’t a good thing. Add to that I still talk about privacy internationally and the fact my own tech usage followed none of my own advice wasn’t lost on me. It was time to move on.

Stage 2 of leaving big tech behind started in April 2019 by moving As many services as possible to open source and more sustainable services. As of today, Google Fi is about the last service I still use in Google. Photos, maps, mobile payments, drive, even the hardware around the house has been replaced over the last 6 months resulting in using best of class services and hardware in place of big-tech defaults wherever possible.

The results have been amazing! Even Joy, who was skeptical of me changing tech on us yet again, has come around and nearly all our data is now self-hosted in a handful of services.

What’s to come?

We’re not done yet. There are plenty of areas in our digital lives that could still be improved including less reliance on companies such as Amazon and others. In addition, while I’ve been privileged to be able to make this transition myself, I realize it isn’t easy or even feasible for most. I want to use my own experiences and expertise to re-focus my talks, tutorials and efforts to help educate people on the issues as well as to help build solutions to make such a transition as easy for everyone as signing up for a Google or Apple account. Sure, there’s a long way to go but I’ve got time and, just like my own journey, it doesn’t have to be all at once. We can start small and I can do my best to simply help people move in the right direction.

Chris Wiegman

About Chris Wiegman

Chris is a Senior Software Engineer devoted to improving the developer experience for WordPress developers of all kinds. His work focuses on the intersection of development, privacy, ethics and usability of software and development to help improve the lives of everyone who uses the modern technology.

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