Archie Baer

Digital Freedom

This is going to be somewhat of a rant.

We've sold our freedom and/or privacy for convenience.

To Apple. To Facebook. To Microsoft, Google and Amazon.

This has been bothering me a lot, for a while, but especially over the past few weeks. At first, I thought it was just phones. The way you can't download anything outside the app store. How you have to go through numerous warnings to download stuff outside the Play Store. Sure, you can. But that's not the point. Most people won't. Most people won't jailbreak their iPhone. Most people won't use Linux. Most people won't have a clue how to change the defaults and escape the prisons they've made for themselves.

A lot of people disagree with me on this. A lot of people are defending the ecosystems and companies that they've invested so much of their time and data into. The App Store fee is good. It prevents low quality apps. It's Apple's platform, they can do what they want. No. TikTok is about to be banned in the US, by the time you're reading this, you won't be able to download it from the Apple App Store, or Google Play Store. Imagine... Imagine if you could run whatever code you want. Imagine if you could choose what you can do on your own device. If every piece of content you interact with didn't have to be reviewed by some corporation that has few worries besides being beaten to two trillion dollars by their competitors.

That was possible once.

You could write code for people, and they could run it.

You didn't have to have a license to distribute code. You just did. People could use what they want.

They had freedom.

But that was a long time ago.

A time before we decided that it was easier just to let Google and Apple and Microsoft make our decisions for us. A time before it just works.

But now, things are different.

If you want to make an app on iOS, you need to use Apple's app store. And if you don't like their rules? Too bad. You can't let people use your own payment system. You can't direct people to your website to pay there. Unless, of course, Apple knows that you're too valuable to take off the App Store, like Spotify or Amazon. And don't even think about being transparent. Facebook tried that, "Apple takes 30% of this purchase". But that's not allowed. It's "unnecessary information". Consumers have to remain ignorant. After all, why should they care? They're not paying. It doesn't affect them. If a developer can't pay for a developer license, they can't go and download the app somewhere else. They'll just find an alternative from another person.

In fact, since in-app purchases are required to give Apple a commission, it somewhat incentivises apps to earn money from ads instead. But Apple really cares about your privacy, don't they?

Google is almost as bad. People don't change the defaults. A third of US internet searches use Bing (Yes, really). You have to bypass a bunch of warnings just to install your own APK files. Sure, maybe you can do that. Or maybe you can jailbreak your iPhone. But will everyone else? If you refuse to go through the default distribution method, 99% of consumers won't know how to use anything else. Will they try to find another way to get your app? No. They'll find an alternative. In some cases, that alternative might even be Apple's own services. After all, why use Spotify or Netflix when Apple Music and Apple TV are so closely integrated with your iPhone, and work so much better? And don't try to make your own marketplace. Apple supports game streaming. But only if each game has its own, individual app. Listed in the app store, of course.

And let's not forget about how Epic Games didn't want to use the Play Store. At least they had somewhat of a choice there, unlike iOS. But it didn't work. People don't use alternatives if they're too difficult to install. Epic tried to get companies like OnePlus and LG to have their launcher preinstalled. But Google said no to that.

I hate this.

People, willingfully - ignorantly - trapping themselves in the duopoly of Google and Apple. Both of which are motivated to crush competition, and squeeze every penny out of developers in order to reach their users. Haha, no developer, you are not adding value to our platform anymore. You are replaceable. If your app were to suddenly disappear, users would immediately find an alternative. You don't matter. So follow our rules, no matter how extortionate they may be, and you can have users for your app. If you don't, someone else will.

Who is to blame for this dystopia? We chose to buy these phones. Is it our fault? Did we do this willingfully? Or ignorantly? I mean, we can leave if we wanted... right? Then again, my whole family uses Apple devices. And do you really want to be that guy who can't use iMessage, Facetime and AirDrop? Like, why use WhatsApp or Telegram when iMessage just comes preinstalled. Why would anyone install some third party app?

If developers don't like our rules, they can just build apps for Android instead. That's what Tim Cook said. But is it true?

How many apps do you use that only work on Windows? Or Mac? Or iOS or Android? And what are the chances that anyone else knows about it?

Imagine if Instagram, WhatsApp, Discord, or Twitter didn't have an app for either iOS or Android. It wouldn't have nearly as many users. Few people would use it. It'd be inconvenient. A lot of your friends aren't on it. So no. Saying people can just build apps for Android instead is no different from saying people can just choose to not build apps. It's possible, but pointless.

And then there's desktop apps. Despite Microsoft's attempt with Windows 10 S, almost everyone is free to run applications from wherever they want, without Microsoft or Apple controlling what users can do. Right? As it turns out, no. Because code signing.

I want to make desktop apps for Alles. I want to make it so you can just download it from our website, and run it. Simple, no? Except I have two "options". Though there is really only one practical route. The first is a user goes to our website. They download the app.

"NOPE! This application might be a virus! You shouldn't download it!"

"No, no, I definitely want this app."

"Are you sureee?"

"Yes. Let me download it."

"Fine, but don't complain when your computer gets hacked."

"Okay, let's just click insta-"

"WARNING! WARNING! THIS APPLICATION IS FROM AN UNTRUSTED SOURCE! YOU SHOULD DELETE IT IMMEDIATELY!"

"Oh, come on! Is there another option?"

"No."

"Really?"

"No."

"What if I click 'view more'?"

"Oh... yes, haha, yes, you can install it if you're sure."

And for what reason does Mac/Windows believe this is a virus? It's because you haven't paid $100 a year to a certificate authority (or Apple's dev program). $300 if you want Windows SmartScreen to let people use it immediately. These warnings are designed to scare off 99% of users. If you want to distribute an app for Mac or Windows, you really have to have a code signing certificate. It offers no additional security. Just a cryptographic seal of approval.

And open-source? What about open-source software? They aren't expected to pay to distribute stuff, right? That's the whole point of open-source. Ha, no!

Another open-source package, Inkscape, is also offered for download unsigned. Developer Marc Jeanmougin told us they don't bother to sign because "on Windows you can usually bypass all warnings." That said, the installer is signed for the Windows 10 Store and for macOS, where "we don't really have a choice." [Source]

Why have we done this? Why have we trapped ourselves on these platforms that are unfair to developers, even open-source ones, and ultimately harm consumers and competition? And why, why are we supporting these platforms, and even telling ourselves that it's for our own good?

This doesn't stop spam, or viruses, or protect your privacy.

This doesn't benefit you, or the developers that work tirelessly to bring you the software you love.

This only benefits the big companies that control the prison we've locked ourselves in.

*sigh*

So what can we do?

The two things we can all do to try to fix it: demand change, and use open software. I'm not a political activist, but we need to encourage lawmakers and regulators to do something about this. We need to back the companies that are fighting against Apple and Google, despite our personal views on them, like Epic Games. And most importantly, we need to change. We need to try Linux distributions like Ubuntu or Elementary OS, and use open-source alternatives to apps like Microsoft Office.

We need to fight back against the stereotypes that Linux is only for hackers and nerds. Freedom is for everyone.

Centralising our lives with services like the App Store only makes censorship easier. Maybe TikTok is bad. But is that for governments and big companies to decide? Facebook is undoubtedly bad, and has interfered with politics in the past, yet it is our decision whether we can use it or not. We need to make decisions for ourselves, instead of relying on these companies to make them for us.

It only "just works" because we're giving companies like Apple the power to make important decisions that we think are complicated. And this will always be abused to serve their commercial interests.

Maybe you don't like Ubuntu. Well it's OSS, people can change it to make it how they want. Try a fork of Ubuntu. Try an entirely different distro.

It's your device. It's your choice.

And encourage others to reclaim their freedom.

Fight back against the censorship.

Tell other people about how companies like Apple and Google treat the developers that bring them great things.

We can only make this better if we work together.

So put aside your preferences for a minute, stop defending these companies with baseless arguments.

And make a difference.