Smartphones are a great resource. They give us access to the internet wherever we are, allow us to check in with social media, emails and friends online, and provide entertainment through games and interesting (though sometimes pointless) apps. But smartphones have a dark side too. They give us access to the internet wherever we are, allow us to check in with social media, emails and friends online, and provide entertainment through games and interesting (though sometimes pointless) apps.
No, that's not a copy-paste error. The same benefits of smartphones can also be viewed as problems for some (a lot, most?) people. With unlimited internet access wherever we are, it can become our go-to source for help or advice, rather than friends and family (or, dare I say, doctors and professionals). With the ability to check in with social media, emails and friends online, we're more likely to be on our phones than communicating with those around us. And entertainment? Well I'm sure I don't need to tell you how addictive apps/games can negatively affect us in different ways.
The other issue I have with smartphones, Android/Google in particular, is the increasingly alarming privacy issues we keep hearing about. Phones listening to and recording what we say even when we're not using them, apps requiring dangerous and unnecessary permissions, Google/Facebook/etc. knowing more about us than probably our own family does... A while ago I started using DuckDuckGo instead of Google as my default search engine, and it's great! But having an Android phone means Google's still a very big part of my life. I wanted to minimise my dependency on Google, and on my smartphone in general.
I love minimalism - the art of doing more with less. More freedom, more breathing space, more time, more energy. Less stress, less worry, less clutter, less junk. So I started researching minimal smartphones. One of the first things I came across was the Light Phone. It's a cool little phone that goes back to basics with just phone calls and speed dials. I'd love to get to a place where I could have something like this without missing all the other features of my smartphone, but I'm not quite there yet. So I used that as inspiration and researched ways of cutting down on my smartphone's features/apps. That led me to the LessPhone Android app. It's a launcher that strips down the allowed features of your smartphone to just phone calls and one or two apps of your choice. It even looks similar to the Light Phone. When I started considering installing that on my phone, I realised that there are still quite a few apps I prefer to keep. So I keep looking and then found Siempo. It was much closer to what I was looking for - built for less distraction, preventing overuse, and a healthier experience. What really inspired me here was the simple, distraction-free app icons.
Choosing Smartphone Apps
Before I go on, I'd like to explain how I go about choosing what apps I install on my phone. As a free and open-source enthusiast, I love free software that is open and accountable. And I hate advertising. As such, I try to avoid apps that contain ads and that offer in-app purchases. When looking for a particular type of app to install, I'll do a search in the Play store and then, because the Play store is silly and doesn't let you filter or sort by apps with[out] ads or purchases, I check each and every app until I find one that does what I want without either of those two things. It takes a while, but it's worth it to find an app that doesn't have the distraction of ads or the frustration of paid features. Even better when the app's code is open-source.
I also look at the permissions each app requires. Ideally an app will require as few permissions as possible (and only those relevant to it's actual functionality). I don't like apps that to want to access every part of my phone and personal data unnecessarily.
Customising My Phone
Since the Siempo app offered in-app purchases, I was hesitant to use it. Instead, I thought about how I could do something similar using different apps to get the exact experience I was looking for. I first went looking for a launcher that would allow me to better customise my home screen. I chose Lawnchair Launcher (Get it? Lawn-chair, launcher...). I love that it let me finally hide the Google search thing on my home screen. I never used that and couldn't seem to get rid of it before. Then I went looking for a new, simplified icon set. I settled on Whicons. Yes I know, it offers in-app purchases, but after I enabled the icons through my new launcher, I don't have to open the app any more.
In all the research I did, I also came across this blog post: A Minimalist Guide to Simplifying Your Smartphone (and Your Life). Following it's suggestions, I made the following further changes to my phone:
- Removed a bunch of apps
- Disabled apps I didn't want but couldn't remove
- Disabled notifications from the one social media app I did keep
- Rearranged my home screen to be simpler with only the most-used apps
- Choose a minimal wallpaper
I've watched lots of TED talks recently about smartphones. Interestingly, many of the popular TEDx talks on YouTube about smartphones are not about how great they are or how they improve our lives, but quite the opposite. Now what does that tell you?
So I made a decision that I no longer wanted my phone to control me, but that I would control my phone. I decided to remove social media, emails, games, and other attention-grabbing apps from my phone. So I started removing apps. Bye bye Facebook, bye bye emails, bye bye those games I downloaded but never got around to playing. Now don't get me wrong. I still use Facebook, I still use email, and I still play games, just not on my phone any more.
As I was looking through my installed apps to see what I could remove, I noticed some pre-installed apps that I wanted to get rid of (apps that came with the phone/Android). Also, I started thinking about the apps I was keeping, and if there were better alternatives (considering my anti-ads, anti-purchases and anti-Google stance). So for each installed app in my phone, I did some research to find out exactly what it was, if I needed it and, if so, if there was a better app I could use instead. Through this process I:
- Replaced Gboard (Google keyboard) with Simple Keyboard. It has only one permission (controlling vibration) compared to Google's 20+ permissions (for a keyboard app!). I'm not sure if I'll keep Simple Keyboard though, as I really miss autocorrect (I have fat fingers).
- Researched Android Messages alternatives, but couldn't find anything decent just yet. Maybe in the future I'll try again.
- Decided to keep Messenger Lite. It's how I keep in touch with my family, and how people can contact me through my business FB page. I did, however, turn off all notifications so that I'm not distracted by pings throughout the day. I'll check it when I want, without distraction.
- Replaced Google PDF Viewer with PDF Viewer Plus. I originally installed Google PDF Viewer when I uninstalled Google Drive (it has a PDF viewer built in). But in my attempt to (somewhat) distance myself from Google products, I found PDF Viewer Plus instead. It's lightweight, has only the necessary permissions to read PDF files from your phone, and is open-source!
- Replaced Google News and Weather with Yr. It's a great weather app with no ads or in-app purchases (unlike every other weather app out there).
My home screen is simpler now, holding only the apps I regularly use (with the less-used ones available from the app drawer). And I chose a minimal wallpaper (that was included with Lawnchair). My phone is now cleaner, and looks sleek, simple and stylish. The only notifications I get are calendar reminders and messages from my wife via Telegram.
I'm not Google-free by any means. I still use Google Maps for navigating Tallinn's public transport network, Google Calendar for shared events/reminders with my wife, Google Keep for shopping lists and notes that I share with my wife, and I am still using my Google account as a backup for my phone's contacts, etc. One day I hope to ditch more Google products and take up more privacy-friendly ones instead. But for now I've taken steps in the right direction and am happy with my new distraction-free, minimal phone.