Chris Wiegman

My Adventures in Leaving Big Tech – A Status Update

My Adventures in Leaving Big Tech - A Status Update

I’ve written quite a bit about my adventures in trying to move to smaller, more sustainable and more private tech over the past few years. From my first attempt at breaking out of the Apple ecosystem with a Pixel phone to leaving Mac behind and eventually leaving Google behind. Of course there have been setbacks and re-starts but, today, I feel like my tech is in a more comfortable state than it has been in a long while.

Like any endeavor, my journey in tech is still a work in progress. As I wrote earlier this year, tech, for me, has become something I evaluate in terms of a set of values rather than simply something where I always pursue the “latest and greatest.” In fact, at this point in my life tech isn’t always about the “best” in the same way that most people view “best.” While productivity is still an important value it is not the only value I’m going for anymore. Today “best” is a combination of thing and I’ve often discarded the most productive tool where the tool was lacking in other areas.

Leaving big tech behind is about more than de-Googling

While I started really documenting my tech journey in earnest while moving away from Google services and I am quite happy with the effort I’ve made to remove Google from my life, removing Google isn’t the only goal. In fact I started this journey with the goal of not being so dependent on Apple and, when I did, Google was the first company I turned to as an alternative. Later I realized that I had come to rely on Google at least as much as I had on Apple and I wasn’t comfortable with it. This is where my journey took on a strong “de-Googling” tint that has been a continuing theme through to today.

In addition to Google I’ve also been working on removing tech from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and generally all proprietary/corporate sources where possible. This has come with varying levels of success. The simple fact is that it is impossible in our world to completely remove all big tech from our lives and, anymore, I’m not certain that it is always completely necessary.

The search for small tech – current status

So where do I stand now with my tech? Here is the hardware and software I’m currently using and how I got here…

Hardware

  • iPhone 8+ -> Pixel 3XL
    Giving up my iPhone was my first step in escaping Apple’s ecosystem and I’m happy with my current results. The Pixel has had everything “Google” possible removed and works damn well on FOSS software. As for the OS itself, I find it quite superior to the UX of iOS as it is easier to navigate and use for much of the way I want to use my phone. For example, my home screen is almost completely empty sans a weather widget and links to the phone and Signal apps. From what I understand iOS has gotten better over the last 3 years but, with at least a year of life left on this phone, I’m not about to test that recommendation anytime soon.
  • Macbook Pro -> System76 Oryx Pro
    This was one of the better purchases I made after my 2016 Mac needed 4 keyboard replacements in its first two years. The Oryx is an excellent machine that has been able to handle everything I throw at it. In addition, Pop!_OS has been a wonderful operating system as my daily driver. To date I can truly say that not only have I not had to give anything up in moving to Linux but I’ve found many alternatives to proprietary Mac software that are better than what I used on the Mac.
  • Fitbit Versa
    I’ve tried the Apple Watch and an Amazfit Bip but neither worked for me. I use my watch to track my daily steps, sleep and heart rate. It receives no notifications, doesn’t play music and connect to an assistant or anything else. While I would love something more privacy-friendly the 1 week battery life and accurate fitness data makes Fitbit the best option I’ve found so far. The fact is that gamification simply gets me moving more and seeing those trends over time is motivating. So far this year I’m down 15lbs and, especially with the pandemic, most of that comes from more steps.
  • Airplay -> Chromecast Audio -> Sonos
    Music is a big part of my life. I rarely watch TV but I often have a speaker going 10 hours a day or more. For a long time we played music through Apple’s old Airport Express devices connected to various speakers throughout the house. When these died we moved to Chromecast Audio which, while cheap, weren’t the most reliable. Last year we moved our listening to Sonos One (without Alexa or Google Assistant) devices and they’ve been great. They sound great, they’ve been incredibly reliable and they don’t care what I control them with. From Android to Mac to Linux they can play every audio service I have a passing interest in. That’s a win for us.
  • Apple Time Capsule -> Google WiFi -> Unifi/Synology
    When our trusty Apple Time Capsule died a few years ago I decided to try a mesh router in the house. After 8 months of connection issue after connection issue I gave up on it and, in the midst of our push for more privacy friendly devices, decided it was time for an upgrade. We bought enough equipment for a UniFi network throughout the house (switch, controller, router and access point) and it’s been rock solid for over a year and a half now. Whereas I had to reboot nearly every other router we had weekly (not to mention put up with dead zones) the UniFi equipment can run for months without a hiccup. The only issues I’ve had with it were when I tried to experiment with settings but that wasn’t the fault of the router. To handle the backup features the Time Capsule used to do we added a Synology DS918+ which works for Time Machine on Apple as well as a backup for every other device we have. The setup is a bit bulkier than a single box but it has been well worth it.

Beyond the devices I have I think what is more interesting is what I don’t have anymore. Namely no more tablet or second laptop, no digital assistants and, really, no extra devices. Instead I’m trying my best to extend the replacement cycles on my devices well past 2 years where possible so I should be able to hold on to all the above for a while yet (pending none of them fail). Historically even iPhones and Macs tend to fail for me between the 2 and 3 year mark which make both my current phone and watch some of the longest lasting devices I’ve owned. As a result I’ve been able to focus on what I want to do with my tools and not constantly upgrading or modifying the tools themselves. It’s been well worth the effort.

Software and Services

Of course my hardware is only as good as the software on it. Here is most of what I’m currently using and what I’ve settled on to get there…

  • Google Drive/Docs/Calendar/etc -> Nextcloud
    File syncing, editing and calendar/tasks are an absolute necessity for me. I tried hosting Nextcloud myself for a while which worked fine after file system issues caused me to start over entirely last winter. Then, about 2 months ago, I found Hetzner.com, or, more specifically, their Storage Share product. This hosted Nextcloud offering has completely replaced Google’s offerings (sans email) and has been rock solid for our needs. I could, if I wanted to, even edit documents with it by setting up the right apps though that hasn’t been a need yet.
  • Gmail -> Mailbox.org
    Reliable email that takes our privacy seriously seemed like a big ask. Other services either require proprietary apps or have privacy or others issues. As we also needed to move my parents over from a 13 year old Google Apps account, I couldn’t afford to get it wrong. Mailbox.org has been wonderful for this. Email is reliable and I make constant use of features such as domain blocking and disposable addresses. If I have a complaint it is that the UX of their site leaves a lot to be desired but that is well worth putting up with for safe, reliable email.
  • Apple Photos -> Google Photos -> Synology Moments
    We tend to take a lot of photos so having a safe place to keep them is key. Apple Photos isn’t an option without all Apple devices and Google simply isn’t a trustworthy place to store something as personal as a photo collection. Luckily our Synology is up to the task with their Moments app and it has been great for Joy and I. This solution is scheduled for an imminent upgrade so expect to see more posts on it when that is complete.
  • Google Search -> DuckDuckGo
    I’ve tried all the search services and DuckDuckGo is the only one I’ve found that can not only compete with Google but, in my experience, offers a consistently better search experience. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself double checking results with Google or something else.
  • Text Messages, Facebook Messenger, etc -> Signal
    After I deleted my Facebook account I did lose track of some people. I thought that would bother me but it really hasn’t. The bigger issue was keeping in touch with family and friends that I wanted to keep up with. For 90% of everyone I talk to Signal has been great. It takes your privacy seriously and is super easy to setup, even for my parents. I often refer to it as an almost-perfect replacement for iMessage that actually takes your privacy seriously and, so far, I have not been disappointed.
  • Apple Music -> Google Play Music -> Spotify
    Spotify is the only service I’ve found with a complete library and the ability to work on every device I throw at it, including having a native Linux app. There’s not much else to say on that. If we went back to all Apple devices I could see using Apple Music again but, without that, this has been fine.
  • Apple Podcasts -> Pocket Casts
    Pocket Casts has been a solid podcasting app for years on Android. I had used it even before switching to iPhone in 2012. Coming back to Android it was an easy decision. It’s feature rich with a complete library of podcasts and it works with all our devices.
  • Feedly -> FreshRSS
    I’ve relied on RSS for well over a decade. It is the best way I’ve found to keep track of the sites I want to follow. On the other end, it’s simple but also has the ability to reveal a lot about you which can be a privacy issue. As such I’ve moved to hosting a copy of FreshRSS myself. If you’re looking for a simple way to keep up with websites while keeping your email inbox clean I highly recommend giving it a try.
  • Safari Reading List -> Pocket -> Wallabag
    Who can read everything right when they see it? Saving articles and other content for later has been extremely important for a long time. Safari did this OK as long as your list was small but failed completely if you use anything else but Safari. After playing with Pocket for a while I settled on Wallabag, also self-hosted, for keeping track of things to read later and it has been a great replacement.
  • Google Maps -> OsmAnd+
    Google and Apple maps both do a great job at getting you around. That said, OpenStreetMap, using OsmAnd on Android, is a solid replacement even if it doesn’t have all the business data. The only catch for me here is that, with the pandemic, I haven’t used it much for actual traveling. We’ll see what I think after a year or so on the road with it.
  • Google Domains/Hover -> Gandi
    Finding a reliable domain registrar that isn’t full of shady business practices is hard. Gandi seems to be the one to solve my issues while also not being completely horrible in their marketing or charging ridiculous prices. I’ve even started to use their email forwarding and other features which, with one of the better UIs in the category, has been super easy to setup and handle. I do recommend giving them a shot the next time you buy a new domain.
  • Cable -> YouTube TV -> Hulu
    We still have Netflix and Disney+ but we’ve replaced live TV with Hulu. They have a great channel lineup, including local news, for times like now where we’re home more than ever. I don’t know if we’ll keep live TV forever but, at least for now, we’re quite happy with the service from Hulu.
  • Google Fi -> Xfinity Mobile -> T-Mobile
    Google Fi was a hard service for us to leave because it simply worked. I wasn’t comfortable, however, with putting even more data through Google and didn’t care for its limited phone support and high price for low data use. We switched to Xfinity Mobile earlier this year thinking it would solve our issues but the experiment failed miserably when features such as mobile data and voicemail simply failed completely. Earlier this month we decided to stop fighting and went with T-Mobile. We now have great coverage at home and while traveling and, with their international coverage, future trips should be almost as easy as Google Fi was.
  • Google Fi VPN/NordVPN -> Algo
    With VPNs I’m done trusting any service. Algo itself isn’t a service but a script that will spin up a VPN server on your own hosting. For less than we were paying on NordVPN I now have a super fast VPN running on Hetzner that uses a static IP that I use to help further lock down my own servers and networks. This allows us to be safe on WiFi networks as well as allows us to connect to our Synology at home and other devices that don’t need to be available to the public.
  • Amazon -> Local Stores
    Another big-tech ecosystem I’ve wanted to leave for a while now is Amazon. Paying for their Prime service just made using them too easy to use. I’m happy to say I’ve finally dropped prime and we’re using local stores for as much as possible. If I absolutely need something, and it isn’t available locally, I can wait for it for a few days from Amazon. It’s amazing how much this has cut down our splurge purchases and how many great local places we’ve found for the rest.

In the end we’ve made a lot of progress diversifying where we keep our data and finding that we don’t need all hardware from a single company to do our jobs. Add in a push for more ethical alternatives and I’m pretty happy with the progress we’ve made so far.

What’s next for our tech?

Of course, tech isn’t static. Nor is every aspect of our current setup perfect. Given that I can see a few changes over the next year as we search for better solutions in two primary areas: travel and communications.

First, I’m not sure that OsmAnd will be a long-term solution for navigation. It simply doesn’t do discovery or traffic and directions are limited to about 250 miles per route. That’s been fine around home but may not be enough as branch out on trips in the future. If I needed to, for now it would be trivial to re-add Google Maps in a pinch but that is something I’d rather avoid where possible.

The other travel issue is device size. I love my Oryx but I had gotten used to traveling with either a 13″ Acer laptop or an iPad. While the Oryx is about the same size as my last good Mac it still seems huge in comparison to the others. In addition, the power supply on it is big enough that I could use it as a weapon if I so choose. As such as smaller primary machine might be in the cards before too long.

Second is communications, namely text and phone. I don’t touch my phone unless I have to. As a result, unless someone contacts me on Signal I can miss it for days. The ability to get all text messages and calls on my laptop is the one feature I truly miss from the Apple ecosystem. After a year I’m not sure how to solve it either. My options, today, seem to be either go back to Apple or find a VOIP service that would allow me to handle it all from my computer.

While neither of these problems have been insurmountable during the pandemic I fear that once I start traveling again they will both become much bigger issues rather quickly. To date I simply don’t have an answer as to how I’m going to solve them which, in the big picture, doesn’t seem like the worst problem to have.

If I’ve learned anything from this journey in tech it is that tech is not a zero-sum game. There are many tools out there that achieve identical goals in very different ways and that is a good thing for all of us.