In my last couple of posts, I've talked a bit about the drawbacks of iOS and Android, but acknowledged I've found the alternatives lacking. Ultimately, I went back to Android -- but not stock Android.
Android -- at least, the base OS -- is free/open-source software. As such, there are many different variations of Android available.
Replicant is the only Android variation endorsed by the GNU Project; it seeks to provide an Android experience with only free/open software. Unfortunately, it has drawbacks: it has a very limited number of supported devices, the most recent of which is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, which was released in 2013. Replicant itself isn't quite that outdated; the latest version is 6.0, based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow (2015). And even though Replicant itself is free, it still requires proprietary firmware in most cases.
I've ultimately settled on LineageOS, an Android distribution descended from the previous CyanogenMod project.
You can install Google Services and Apps (Gapps) on top of LineageOS, but on my latest installation, I opted not to do that. I get most of my Android software from F-Droid, a free software repository.
I do run a few proprietary apps; the Amazon App Store is one source, and there's a program called Yalp Store (you can get it from F-Droid) that lets you download apps from the Google Play Store without installing Gapps -- though keep in mind that does violate Google's terms of service.
Someone also recently recommended microG to me; it's a free re-implementation of Google Services. I haven't tried it out yet, but it looks promising.
All in all, I was surprised by just how easy it ended up being running an Android-based OS without Google's proprietary apps and services. That's easy for values of "easy" that include being comfortable flashing your phone, of course, but so far it's worked out pretty well for me.
I'd sure like to see one of those alternatives get a better foothold, though. More competition is good for everybody, especially if that competition comes from free software.
Yesterday I talked a little bit about Ubuntu Touch, a would-be alternative smartphone OS based on GNU/Linux (that is to say, the Linux kernel and GNU userland, as opposed to Android, which is based on the Linux kernel and Google's own userland).
There are other phone OS's out there, too.
Jolla's Sailfish is another GNU/Linux-based OS, based on Nokia's abandoned MeeGo platform. It's the most mature of the lot, but supports a limited number of devices. I haven't tried it because the port for my phone, the Nexus 5, hasn't been updated since 2015. But it appears to have pretty good support for Sony Xperia phones, and it runs Android apps through a compatibility layer, though my understanding is that that compatibility layer is proprietary, drains the battery significantly, and doesn't have full compatibility.
Other than iOS, Android, and, to a lesser extent, Windows Phone, Ubuntu Touch, and Sailfish, there aren't a lot of mobile OS's that are ready for prime-time. KDE's Plasma Mobile is still in early stages; the steps for setting it up on a Nexus 5 indicate that it's strictly for developers right now.
GNOME doesn't have much of a mobile presence at this time, either, though Purism has announced that its upcoming Librem 5 phone will feature a GNOME desktop (with Plasma as an alternative option).
There's also LuneOS, a fork of Palm/HP's webOS (which, like Android, is based on the Linux kernel but not the GNU userland). It's still early days too.
I also just ran across postmarketOS, whose homepage says "The project is at very early stages of development and is not usable for most users yet." (Boldface in original.)
One of the biggest problems facing all these projects is the proliferation of different Android devices, most of which rely on proprietary firmware for hardware support. There is a project in the works that should help with the hardware support issues (though not with the inherent problems of proprietary firmware); it's called Halium, and it should make development much easier for all these projects.
In the meantime, though? You're probably stuck with iOS or Android -- Apple's walled garden or Google's spyware.
There are ways to run Android without Google services or proprietary software. I'll get to that tomorrow.
It's disappointing that the smartphone market has turned into a choice between two OS's: iOS's walled-garden approach where Apple decides what software you're allowed to run on the phone that you ostensibly own, and Android's spyware panopticon security nightmare.
There are a few alternatives, none of them very good.
A few months ago, I tried switching from Android to Ubuntu Touch. Canonical abandoned Ubuntu Touch a few months back, but it's still under development by a small community-based group called UBports.
Here's what I wrote at the time (originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2017-07-03):
It's a pretty different idiom from Android (no ubiquitous three buttons at the bottom of the screen, though their functionality is there; swipe from the left edge of the screen to get a dock, from the right edge to get a Windows 7-style list of open programs, and the Back button is handled at the app level), but I could get used to it, and the list of available apps seemed sufficient for my day-to-day use.
The only real problem was that the phone didn't work.
I fucked around with the settings for awhile but all I managed to accomplish was to change what it said under "carrier" from "Sprint" to "none".
So I decided to give LineageOS another shot. (Well, technically my first time using it as LineageOS, but I used it plenty when it was Cyanogenmod.) It appears that I've mostly fixed the Sprint issues I had with it before.
But I thought Ubuntu was pretty impressive, and I intend to give it another shot someday. Maybe once they finish updating it to a 16.04 base.
I should probably update my post about getting Sprint to work on LineageOS (then CyanogenMod); I need to update the title and the links, and add the last step that finally got it (mostly) working.
I've managed to do okay without Gapps, too -- but maybe I'll get to that another time.
In my previous post, I established that, despite strides made in screen keyboards and text-to-speech programs, a hardware keyboard is still the best way to write text documents.
In this one, I'll look at how phones and tablets work as replacements for PC's.
Problem 3: Phones Are Still Phones
Of course, you can connect a phone to a computer monitor, and to a keyboard. Or to a game controller.
Awhile back I hooked my phone up to my TV, and paired it to my DualShock 4, and fired up Sonic 4.
The game ran fine -- I didn't like it very much but it ran fine.
And then my mom called me.
The game stopped, and my TV screen filled up with a message that I was getting a phone call. So I walked across the room, picked up my phone, disconnected it from my TV, and answered it.
This is not optimal behavior for a computer.
Now, there are possible ways to fix this.
Headsets and speakerphone are two ways to answer the phone without having it in your hand, but neither one is optimal. Speakerphone is often hard to hear and can have that awful echo. And as for headsets, well, do I carry one in my pocket? Do I keep one in every room where I might dock my phone and use it as a computer?
A better solution would be to "connect" your phone to a monitor and speakers wirelessly, maybe using a device like a Chromecast. That way you could keep it next to you, or in your pocket, while still editing documents, or playing Sonic 4, or whatever. And if it rang, you could answer it, and not lose whatever was on your screen -- say I get a call where I want to take notes with my keyboard (as frequently happens); there could be a way to do that.
But the easier solution is probably to have the device that's connected to your keyboard and monitor(s) not be your phone. Especially if people continue to buy other devices, such as laptops or tablets.
Problem 4: Phone Interfaces Don't Make Good Desktop Interfaces
Windows 8. Do I even need to elaborate?
Microsoft tried to design an interface that would work on phones and on desktops. It was a huge failure.
This was entirely foreseeable. A 4" touchscreen is completely different from a pair of 1080p monitors with a keyboard and mouse attached to them. An interface designed for the former is a lousy fit for the latter, and vice-versa.
So, with Windows 10, Microsoft tried something else, and something altogether more sensible: the OS was designed with a phone/tablet interface and a desktop computer interface, with the ability to switch between the two. If you connect your phone to a dock that's hooked up to a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse, then the interface changes to desktop mode.
Which is a good idea (and one that Canonical has been moving toward for years), but Windows Phone hasn't exactly set the world on fire (and Ubuntu Phone isn't a thing that anybody seems to want). Windows tablets, on the other hand, including Lenovo's Yoga series and MS's own Surface line, have fared much better.
Google's moving toward this sort of convergence too; it hasn't gotten as far as MS or Canonical yet, but there have been hints of future compatibility between Android and ChromeOS.
Ah yes, ChromeOS -- and the return to dumb terminals running server-side programs.
I think that's going to be key to bringing a few of the major special-case users on board with the transition to lower-powered systems: gamers and media designers.
We'll get to them soon. But in the next post, I'll be looking at the market that's really going to continue driving PC sales: business.
In honor of Banned Books Week, the latest Humble Books Bundle is made up of banned and challenged comic books.
It's not just a good theme, it is, in terms of quality content for your money, the single best collection of comics I have ever seen. I've got a couple caveats about the presentation, which I'll get to in a minute, but it's well worth the price of admission, whatever tier you choose to donate at.
Pay more than the average and you get Heartbreak Soup.
Heartbreak Soup is my all-time favorite comic. Your mileage may vary, but as far as I'm concerned, the list of Greatest Comics of All Time goes Heartbreak Soup, then Maus, then that Spider-Man arc where he has to lift the rubble off him as Doc Ock's underwater base collapses. (No, Watchmen is not in my top three.)
The bundle also has the first volume of Bone. Bone is phenomenal; it's an all-ages adventure story in the classic mold, with influences from Walt Kelly to Carl Barks to Don Martin; it's funny and it's gorgeously drawn. You should definitely get it if you haven't read it yet; it's at the first tier so it can be yours for a penny.
The bottom tier's also got Maggie the Mechanic, which is the other Love and Rockets vol 1. (Heartbreak Soup is the first volume of Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar stories; Maggie the Mechanic is the first volume of Jaime Hernandez's Locas stories.) Maggie the Mechanic is great too, but for my money it's not as great as Heartbreak Soup, or as the other Locas stories that followed. (The Death of Speedy is widely regarded as the best Love and Rockets story; it's in vol 2 of Locas, which is not included in this bundle.)
Bottom tier also has The Frank Book. Jim Woodring's work is beautiful, surreal, wordless, and incredibly detailed. I have six pieces of comic book art hanging on my walls. One is a Quantum and Woody poster signed by Christopher Priest; one is an Uncle Scrooge print signed by Don Rosa. The other four are Jim Woodring prints that my uncle gave me for my birthday after using them in a museum exhibit.
There's some other stuff in there that I don't know as much about. I like Chester Brown but I haven't read The Little Man; I like Jeff Lemire but I haven't read Essex County. I suppose they're probably both pretty great based on their respective cartoonists' other work, but I don't know them.
And The Boys is in there. The Boys is not for me; I'm not a Garth Ennis fan. But if you like the sound of a bunch of asshole superheroes being taken down by a group of regular guys led by somebody who looks exactly like Simon Pegg, you'll probably dig it.
To summarize: it's a great bundle. It's worth buying for Heartbreak Soup, Bone, and Frank alone; I bought it mostly because I'd been wanting to pick up Frank, Essex County, and Information Doesn't Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow (available as an audiobook in this bundle; the only item that isn't a comic book).
So. Great bundle. But. As I said, there are some caveats with the format.
The first of which is, you're probably going to be reading these on a tablet. And some of these comics just don't look as good on a 10" screen.
I was especially worried about The Frank Book given the detail of Woodring's work; this stuff's meant to be read at 8.5"x11" size. But I was surprised to find it actually looks great on my tablet. The full-size book would be better, but it also costs $35 and weighs 3 pounds. And that's the paperback version.
Bone looks fantastic on my screen too.
Surprisingly, of the books I've thumbed through, the one that suffered most was Heartbreak Soup.
Part of that's to do with the ratio. The pages of Love and Rockets are shorter and wider than standard comic book pages.
So on a 6:10 screen like my tablet's, you're left with some major letterboxing and a picture that is uncomfortably small and looks a little jaggy, and text that can be hard to read. (If, on the other hand, you have a tablet with a 4:3 screen, like an iPad, I imagine the Love and Rockets -- and the other more square-ish comics in the collection -- will look a lot better, and you'll have the opposite problem with the more traditionally-sized comics in the set.)
Perfect Viewer also seemed to choke on the file a bit; after the first few pages, it started pausing for long periods of time on each page turn. At first I thought it was due to the file size (the CBZ version is 675MB), but The Frank Book is even bigger and Perfect Viewer didn't give me any trouble with it. So I don't know why it doesn't like Heartbreak Soup, but it doesn't.
In short, Heartbreak Soup is my favorite comic, but my 10" tablet is most definitely not the best way to read it. Again, your mileage may vary; you may have better luck on an iPad, as noted, or if you're cool with just reading it on a desktop computer monitor, it looks great on my 27" 2560x1440 screen. But if you're looking for comics to read on a widescreen tablet, well, there are still a lot of great books in this set that totally justify the purchase, but don't buy it just for Heartbreak Soup. All that said, though? It's still a great damn comic, it doesn't look that bad on my tablet, and if you don't want to look for it at your local library or pay full price for the paperback version, well, it's still worth a read.
There's another one I looked through that I have a visual complaint about, and unfortunately, it's an important one and the granddaddy of all challenged comics: Crime Does Not Pay.
Crime Does Not Pay is a classic. It's the first and most successful of the 1940's-'50's-era crime comics that led to Senate hearings and, eventually, the Comics Code and most of the industry going out of business. But, aside from simply being popular, controversial, and lurid, it's just plain good, with superlative work from the likes of Charles Biro, Bob Montana, and George Tuska.
It's also public domain. You can find most of the series for free on Digital Comic Museum (though if you can spare a donation to keep the site up and running, that would be swell too).
Given that, it's damned disappointing that Dark Horse did such a shoddy job on the colors.
The first image is a scan from one of the original 1950's printings of the comic. It's not pristine; the colors bleed, and if you look closely you can see right through the page to the panel grid from the opposite side. And there are marks on the left side of the page where the staples were.
But despite those flaws, it looks better than the second image, from Dark Horse's restoration. The colors in Dark Horse's version look garish.
And it's down to the paper stock. The scan looks the way it's supposed to, because those colors are supposed to be printed on newsprint. The background is supposed to look a little gray or tan, and the colors are supposed to soak in and blend together.
Dark Horse's version looks garish because they kept the original four-color printing process but put it on high-quality, glossy paper (or the digital equivalent of same). The colors look wrong.
But, in Dark Horse's defense, it could have been worse -- at least they didn't re-color it. Have you seen what they've done to their Conan reprints? Photoshop gradients everywhere. The horror. The horror.
"It could have been worse" isn't a great defense, though. When it comes right down to it, I'd rather read the Digital Comic Museum version, even if I can see the grid lines from the other side of the page.
The only problem is, the Dark Horse collection contains issues #22-#25 (don't let the numbering fool you; #22 is the first issue -- in those days it was common, when a publisher canceled a comic and started a new one, for the new series to continue the old series' numbering with a new title), and Digital Comic Museum doesn't have #23-#25. So while you can download DCM's superior version of issue #22 (and #26, and #27, and lots more, on up through #147), if you want to read #23-25 then you're stuck with the Dark Horse version, and you'd better be prepared for a hell of a lot of eye-searing bright yellow.
There are plenty of instances of publishers doing reprints of old comics right -- either by using newsprint or by scanning or photographing the original printed pages -- but this isn't one of 'em, and that's a shame.
But, all that grousing aside, this bundle? If you have never read a comic book in your life, this has three that I would rank as Absolute Must-Read, in Heartbreak Soup, Bone, and Frank. It's got one of the legitimate most important comics of all time in Crime Does Not Pay, even if I've got some gripes about the presentation and you might be better off grabbing a scanned version from Digital Comic Museum. And aside from those, it's got several more that may not be quite so high on the must-read list but still rank as Great.
If you like good comics, you should get it. And if you don't like good comics, you should get it anyway, because maybe you just haven't ready any comics this good yet.
Update 2015-10-12: My new advice for getting Sprint data to work on a Nexus 5 phone running CyanogenMod 12 is "Don't bother." I never did get it working right, and had to reboot at least once a day to get it working. I've since reverted back to KitKat. Original post follows, but if you want my advice it's "Stick with CM11."
First, let's get one thing out of the way: if you're using a custom Android ROM on your phone (or any device that can receive text messages), you're going to want to make sure it's up-to-date. There's a vulnerability in an Android component called Stagefright that is potentially devastating; it allows an attacker to gain control by doing nothing more than send a text message, and there are now attacks in the wild.
If you've got the stock firmware on your phone, and your phone is relatively recent, you should get the patch to fix this vulnerability automatically. (If, for example, your phone is running Lollipop, either because it came with it or automatically updated to it, you're probably good.)
But if you're running a custom ROM and don't have automatic updates enabled, you're going to want to check on whether you're running a current version that includes the Stagefright fix.
I recently took the opportunity to upgrade my phone to the latest 11.x series to get the fix. And I figured while I was at it, why not upgrade to 12.1 and see if it's any good?
So I installed CyanogenMod 12.1, and everything looked like it was working fine at first -- when I was using it in my own house, on my wifi network. It wasn't until a day or two later that I realized my Sprint data connection wasn't working.
It took rather more searching than it should have, but it turns out there's an easy solution (albeit an annoying one if you've already got your phone set up the way you want it, because it involves wiping it to factory again).
mjs2011 at XDA Developers links to a sprint.zip file assembled by somebody named Motcher41, and gives these instructions for use:
The fix should be flashed during initial installation, so:
SU (if necessary)
Sprint APN Fix zip
I can confirm that you don't need to worry about setting up root before sprint.zip; it's fine if you do it afterward (my recovery, for example, sets up su right before reboot). However, I can confirm that you need to install sprint.zip after Gapps and before your first boot; if you install it before Gapps or after your first boot then it won't work.
Update 2015-09-30: After a few days my data connection quit working again. I rebooted to recovery, reinstalled sprint.zip, and it started working again. So never mind about not working if you install it after you've already booted the ROM; it will still work just as well. Unfortunately, "just as well" appears to mean "just for a few days"; I'm not sure what happened that changed my settings to make it stop working, but if I figure it out I'll update this post again.
You may notice that the linked thread is old (it's from November 2013) and was written in reference to pre-11.0 versions of CyanogenMod. However, I can confirm that it applies to the 12.x series too. This issue appears to be a regression; CM fixed it in version 11 but then broke it again in version 12.
So if you're a Sprint customer and you just installed CyanogenMod 12 on your phone and then discovered Sprint data was no longer working, this is what you're gonna wanna do to fix it.