Cracking Open the Android/iOS Grip on Smartphones and the Mobile Internet

Challenging Google and Apple's dominance of mobile operating systems can give users more control, and support a broad realignment within tech.

A smartphone is seen opening vertically to expose its components between Apple and Android icons and apps/services.
Ian Wenstrand

Go to any smartphone store and revel in the choices… two of them, to be exact: Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. The two companies have a clear duopoly over the smartphone operating system market and, by extension, the global mobile internet ecosystem. Android is estimated to be installed on nearly 75 percent of phones worldwide, encompassing different models and price points, while iOS running on iPhones covers the remaining quarter. In 2019, more than 2.5 billion devices were running Android, and Apple claims that 1.65 billion iPhones were active in 2020.

With increasing public and regulatory concerns about how to spark renewed competition and innovation within the tech industry, this corporate dominance over smartphones and the mobile internet appears to be one of the biggest hurdles we face. When developers want to release a smartphone app, they apply for distribution through Google’s Play Store or Apple’s App Store and agree to their terms and conditions. Google and Apple effectively enforce what gets released through their platforms, and take a substantial cut of app-generated revenues.

This past June, the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority launched a study into Google and Apple to investigate whether their platform dominance is harming consumers.

“Apple and Google control the major gateways through which people download apps or browse the web on their mobiles — whether they want to shop, play games, stream music or watch TV,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the UK regulator. “We’re looking into whether this could be creating problems for consumers and the businesses that want to reach people through their phones.”

The result of this duopoly is that we feel locked into using either of these systems. Our lives run through our phones: contacts, photos of our families and friends, music, location services, and, increasingly, biometric data. Android and iOS are designed to move these data to their respective cloud services, increasing the cost of switching from one system to another. We get locked into Drive or iCloud, remaining with these services largely out of necessity.

So, we make our choice, and grit our teeth. Choosing Google’s Android means our data are heavily monitored by the company. Choosing Apple’s iOS means paying a small fortune for a device that collects less data but is not easily repaired and will be made obsolete in a few years.

Other ventures have unsuccessfully tried to challenge this dominance, such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS, Microsoft’s ill-fated Windows Phone, and Samsung’s Tizen OS. BlackBerry, which was once preeminent in this space, is now little more than a footnote. But new mobile alternatives to Android and iOS are emerging that have potential for the future.

When he first got a smartphone, Félim Whiteley, a Dublin-based software developer and computer consultant, realized that, unlike the computers that he normally used for work, which ran the free and open-source operating system Linux, his phone was more under Google’s control than his own. “Here I have this computer in my pocket with closed software, and I’ve no clue what else, walking about with me, with a mic and camera I have no control over,” he recalled thinking. “It really didn’t sit well, and so the adventure began.”

In 2010, Whiteley started replacing Google applications on his phone, one by one. Instead of Google Cloud, a self-hosted cloud system called ownCloud handled his contacts. Rather than use Google Chat, he switched to Jabber. Then he found the goldmine: F-Droid, an alternative to Google’s Play Store that’s full of free and open-source software (FOSS) apps.

Whiteley had joined an increasing number of people who are breaking free of the Android/iOS mobile duopoly. The appeal and advantage of doing so is the subversion of increasingly invasive data harvesting, as well as the ability to assert more control over mobile devices while reducing their environmental impact.

Data privacy has particularly become a growing public concern, and Apple has recently been leveraging its market power competitively over the issue. But several other projects are addressing the problem head on.

Founded in 2017, the nonprofit e Foundation began the ambitious task of developing a fully functional version of Android without any Google code or services, which it calls /e/OS. While Android is open source, and hence in theory anyone can take its code and build on it, developing a version of Android is much easier if coders include Google’s proprietary and closed source services. In spite of its software-engineering resources, even Samsung relies on Google services for its version of Android.

The e Foundation offers versions of de-Googled Android for a range of smartphones. But installing /e/OS typically involves a complex process of flashing a new ROM to a device — it’s not for everybody. That’s because most phone manufacturers lock their devices to prevent such tampering.

Nevertheless, a market for fully unlocked phones that are ready for tinkering is starting to grow. In 2019, the computer manufacturer PINE64 began shipping the PinePhone, a device that’s designed to be a testbed for fully free and open source Linux development. “The PinePhone has been built from the ground up with running mainline Linux in mind,” Lukasz Erecinski, PINE64 Community Manager, told me. “This was always our primary goal. Every design and component choice was dictated by our vision of a Linux smartphone.”

Rather than fork Android, PinePhone’s creators aspired to run a fully fledged, completely free and open version of Linux on a phone, allowing for the same sort of control Linux users enjoy with their desktop computers. The Linux community responded immediately, with two major software projects, KDE and Manjaro, dedicating teams to work solely on PinePhone-specific user interfaces, applications, and the underlying operating system.

The idea behind the PinePhone is to deliver a mobile device that’s completely under your control. If you don’t like the interface, apps, or the operating system, you can easily switch. “The PinePhone makes it easy to try out OSes without making a commitment,” explained Erecinksi. “You can just flash the OS of interest to a SD card, insert it into the phone, and boot.” On my own PinePhone, I have indulged in the time-honored practice of “distro-hopping” — trying out different versions of Linux like UBPorts, KDE Plasma, and Manjaro and using a range of FOSS applications.

There is a downside, though: the PinePhone is not ready for everyday use. The current edition, labeled a “beta,” is marketed toward highly experienced Linux users. In contrast, the e Foundation sells other phones, such as refurbished and deGoogled Samsung Galaxy models and Gigaset phones, that come pre-installed with /e/OS, and reviewers of /e/OS have found it to be a workable phone for daily use.

But the promise of ventures like /e/OS and the PinePhone is a future that is far less susceptible to corporate surveillance. The PinePhone features physical switches to control the camera, microphone, and WiFi antenna, making it impossible for malware to secretly turn them on. FOSS applications are also, by their nature, open, so end users know how the software is interacting with the camera, storage, or contacts. And of course, neither the PinePhone or /e/OS send data to Google or Apple.

Another key problem posed by the contemporary Google/Apple duopoly is the environmental and human exploitation associated with their devices. Our daily technology largely depends on rare metals and elements, many of which are extracted in brutal conditions, damaging local environments and the people who inhabit them. The iPhone’s famously slim, hermetically sealed design hides the internal details of this exploitation — we’re not invited to open it up, and likewise, we’re not asked to think about the conditions of its production. And, as we throw out our “old” iPhones to get the latest models, we intensify the damage.

Fairphone, a Dutch-based social enterprise founded in 2013, provides a stark contrast. It focuses on acquiring gold, tungsten, tin, and other materials from Fair Trade Certified sources that aim to reduce their environmental impact as well as the exploitation of laborers. Recently, Fairphone co-founded the Fair Cobalt Alliance, an action group for reforming cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo by eliminating child and forced labor while supporting the adoption of responsible mining practices and alternative livelihoods.

Fairphone takes these source materials and manufactures a phone that’s made to last. “We want to show the industry that smartphones don’t have to be discarded after two or three years,” Ioiana Luncheon, Fairphone’s communications manager, told me. The Fairphone device is highly modular, making it easy to repair and even upgrade parts like the camera, screen, microphone, and speaker. Unlike the iPhone, you don’t need a suite of special tools to open the Fairphone — the Fairphone ships with the only tool you need, a small Phillips screwdriver. The goal is to allow end users to maintain their device for many years, reducing the number of Fairphones that are discarded.

It’s not just hardware that causes phones to seem obsolete. In fact, Android or iOS software updates can make older devices feel slow or even purposely make them sluggish. To combat planned obsolescence, Fairphone also concentrates on the sustainability of software. One of the company’s achievements is working with Google to extend the life of an older version of Android to five years, allowing older Fairphone models to keep operating. Extending the life of earlier builds of Android can help prolong the life of these devices. But for those of us who want to de-Google our lives, Fairphone has partnered with the e Foundation to offer /e/OS as an option on the company’s latest phone. The PinePhone should also run for many years because it runs Linux, an operating system that is famous for breathing life into old electronics.

Despite these various efforts, a sustainable, ethical future beyond the Android/iOS duopoly remains a challenging goal. Purism’s Librem 5, a phone that is designed to run a FOSS operating system, provides a cautionary tale. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ruptured global supply chains, the Librem 5 faced shipping delays that made the project’s backers unhappy. I reached out to Purism to ask how the Librem 5 is faring despite the pandemic, and received no reply. But if the experience of delivering the PinePhone is any indication, recovering from pre-existing delays amid a pandemic won’t be easy. 

“Making a device such as the PinePhone is hard — very hard,” said PINE64’s Ericinski. “To build a functional prototype is one thing, but to bring a complex device such as a smartphone to the market, that is a whole different ball game” — one that has been understandably hampered by the pandemic.

Beyond meeting shipping deadlines, fairer and more open phones often cost more and offer less features than their more mass-produced competitors, making wide-scale adoption difficult. The Fairphone, for example, has been critiqued in reviews for not offering the same features as similarly priced Android devices. But, as Luncheon says, the difference in cost is not because the phone is more equitable — it’s because Fairphone’s manufacturing and sales are not nearly on the same scale as Huawei or Samsung. 

“Our sustainability efforts – such as living wages for factory workers, fair materials and other projects [don’t have much effect on] the price of our product,” she noted. “If we were able to get real market traction and start to sell in volume, our costs would come down dramatically.”

In the meantime, breaking the duopoly will likely cost more in terms of both resources and convenience than sticking with the status quo, which means that phone buyers will need to spend a bit more to support these projects. But it’s ultimately a small price to pay in order to promote the growth of open source mobile operating systems in the future, as well as new kinds of devices that offer users greater agency and flexibility. By cracking open the smartphone market, we can support a broad realignment within the tech industry.

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A smartphone is seen opening vertically to expose its components between Apple and Android icons and apps/services.

Artwork By

Ian Wenstrand

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