Google has a mixed history with their product offerings. Though they were once the poster child of open source contributions and open standards, they are now shutting down well-liked, standards-based services to move users to applications that are more tightly integrated in the Google ecosystem, allowing them to more closely track users and collect more data for advertising purposes. As examples, Google Reader (which used the RSS and Atom standards) was shut down in favor of Google+, CalDAV access was limited for Google Calendar (though I think they partially reversed that decision), and they’re in the middle of shutting down Google Talk (which uses XMPP, the same as Facebook and others) in favor of Google Hangouts. The writing is clearly on the wall for FeedBurner and maybe even IMAP access to Gmail. The idea of Google killing off IMAP seemed far fetched a couple of years ago, but now that “Inbox by Gmail” is their vision for email’s future, it certainly seems possible in a few years. All of this means that Google will have much more control over how and when we can use our data.
It’s no secret that Google is continuing to migrate Android from being an open source smartphone to an OS to host its proprietary apps and services. That said, Android is still the most open of the mainstream mobile platforms. Compare that to Apple’s iOS, which is very unlikely to ever receive a version of Firefox that isn’t just a skin for Safari and specifically bans code from the App Store if it uses certain types of open source licenses, like the General Public License (GPL).
Thankfully, open source and standards-based solutions are available on Android. They don’t have a “kill switch” for any one company to flip. The important thing is to use them.
Given the above, if you’re not the fondest of relying on Google for yet another service and would like to know if open source, standards-based apps exist for your need, these are some good sources to consult:
- F-Droid: The first place to check for an open source solution, it has it’s own “app store” with a wide range of packages. You can even find some apps for free, given that their counterparts on Google Play include a compulsory donation. Unfortunately, it’s missing a “most popular” section, even for those who would opt-in to sharing what they’ve downloaded. Regardless, I’ve found that many people don’t know about F-Droid, and many are happy to know it exists.
- Prism-Break: Born out of concerns about government surveillance (e.g., the PRISM project from the NSA), this has lists of open source applications whose code can be audited. It’s not specific to Android; it includes iOS, OSX, Windows, etc. Almost all listed solutions use open standards.
- Droid-Break: Inspired by Prism-Break, this is primarily focused on Android.
Should you only use open source applications? Well, it might not be that enjoyable of an experience on mobile today… and although open source matters, open standards might even be a more important distinction to consider as we move more and more towards cloud computing, considering that products will continue to appear and disappear over time. Certainly, if you have a choice between a closed-source app that uses open standards and a closed-source app that uses the opposite (i.e., proprietary APIs), it would likely to be in your own best interest to strongly consider the former, given the long term.
The list of sources is just a starter set, but worth a look the next time you’re looking for software. If open source and/or open standards aren’t on your list of considerations, there might not be much software that use either in the future.