The days of phones being used primarily to send text messages or make phone calls are gone. They have so many functions that it is difficult to identify one. If we had to, smartphones could be described as tracking devices. They track your location, browsing habits, movements, keypad inputs, and many other things.
Advertisers can be reached through installed apps. The operating system collects lots of data and sends it to developers. App tracking has been in the news for some time, especially since Apple introduced its App Tracking Transparency feature. But what about all the data that the OS collects? A recent study of six types of handsets revealed that most of them transmit “substantial amounts of information” to the OS developer as well as third parties like Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Facebook even when they are idle.
It is clear that sending data over the Internet is part and parcel of connected devices’ functionality. Researchers were surprised by the volume of information sent. What can you do to break free from the Google-Apple duopoly? Although it’s difficult to get out of the Google-Apple duopoly you might be able to install a different operating system if you are concerned about privacy.
There are many great candidates, but Ubuntu Touch and GrapheneOS have been my favorites in terms of ease-of-use, usability, and support.
You still get many results if you Google Ubuntu Touch. These are related to the time the OS was created by Canonical, which is the company that promotes Ubuntu. This was nearly ten years ago. The job was taken over by UBPorts a non-profit foundation.
There are now more -supported devices: You can run the OS on recent devices like the Google Pixel 3a and the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro. It’s easy to install: simply enable USB debugging, unlock your phone’s bootloader, and then download the UBPorts installer. Next, connect your device to the computer.
Ubuntu Touch was tested on three devices: the LG Nexus 5, OnePlus One and Sony Xperia X. Everything went smoothly. It was very easy to use and the natural interaction with the device impressed me at first. The gestures are slightly different than those on Android or iPhones, and there aren’t any buttons at the bottom.
The sidebar is located on the left-hand side of your screen. To launch the main apps, tap on the sidebar. Or swipe right to see all installed apps. It was easy to make calls and do the usual things like browse the Web, send emails, or chat with others.
It is basically a de-Googled experience. To install apps, you don’t have to sign in to Google. Instead of the Play Store, the Open Store is available. This store does not require registration. Unfortunately, there are only a few apps available on this store. Some of the most important ones, such as Dekko for emailing and Telegram’s Teleports clone Teleports do the job, but they lack some of the functionality of native clients.
Ubuntu Touch may not allow you to capture as great images as you can on Android and iOS. UT is not compatible with the top-of-the-line smartphones and their excellent camera equipment. The camera software is not up to par with other proprietary competitors. For instance, on the Pixels, the AI software significantly enhances performance.
Ubuntu Touch is open-source: anyone can access the code to verify that there aren’t any privacy-killing apps or backdoors. It should be safer than iOS or Android. At least that’s the theory. Log4j’s recent mess has raised some doubts about the security of open source software.
Ubuntu Touch is an excellent operating system that’s more mature than you might think. Would I consider using a UT device for my daily driver? If apps scarcity or the quality of photos are not my main concerns, then yes. It is a backup option that I consider a good one.
GrapheneOS is a unique story, and a bit of a paradox. It offers a de-Googled experience, much like Ubuntu Touch. You can install apps using the F-Droid repository or clients such as the Aurora Store. This allows you to download apps directly from the Play Store without logging in. It is a privacy-oriented operating system with many small and big fixes (a list here). This makes it harder to hack than an average Android smartphone.
It was highly praised by security experts. Edward Snowden even mentioned it on his Twitter account in 2019 as his preferred base operating system. It is also based on Android Open Source Project, which Google led, and adopts Mountain View’s security updates. This is a good thing, but it also means that devices can be considered safe as long as they are supported.
It’s also a bit strange that GrapheneOS is only available for Pixels smartphones, which are Google-manufactured phones with some of the best hardware features. They allow you to unlock and relock the bootloader after installing a non-Google firmware. This makes booting more secure.
These are only side effects. GrapheneOS is a great choice if you care about privacy but don’t want to compromise on usability or app availability.
The web-based installer is very easy to use. You can also run it on recent Pixels such as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, if desired. You can also buy an older and cheaper device on eBay or another site like the Google Pixel 3a, 4a, or 4. You could also look into the NitroPhone 1 which is basically a Pixel 4a pre-installed with GrapheneOS. It is quite expensive at EUR599 ($661), but you can get a second-hand phone as low as $189 and spend just a few hours installing the OS.
I have been using GrapheneOS for several months on an old Pixel 3a. I don’t think I have ever missed an Android phone with a normal screen. There’s a catch. Security updates for this model will only be available until May. I’ll need to switch to a newer Pixel to remain secure. Google wins.