How to Win Against Vendor Lock-in

Locked Phone

This whole mess about Samsung region-locking the Galaxy Note 3 got me thinking… As ridiculous as that is, it’s far from the only way that phone-makers, carriers and software vendors try to dictate how we use our devices.

A lot of effort is put into making us loyal to a particular company or brand, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Today I’m sharing my thoughts about vendor lock-in — specifically, how to fight it, and win.

I can think of at least five arbitrary limitations imposed on mobile users. Some of them might not seem so bad, but make no mistake — either by accident or design their intent is to get you cornered.

1. SIM Locks

Can’t quite justify the $900-plus price tag for that shiny, new iPhone 5s? No problem, just sign up for a multi-year contract and your carrier will let you have one for a song. Oh, and one more thing… Don’t you dare try to sell it for a profit to someone on another network, or cut your provider out of those sweet, sweet international roaming fees when you go on holiday.

See, that phone belongs to your carrier. And they’ve got the SIM lock to prove it.

How To Fight It

Remember that your contract is for the service provided by your carrier; the subsidized phone is just a bonus. So contrary to what you might think, that thing is yours from the moment you walk out the door.

With this in mind most devices can be unlocked almost anywhere, or you can procure an unlock code yourself online. These folks seem to enjoy an especially good reputation here on the forums.

Another option is to buy unlocked in the first place. No carrier will tell you this, but the Nexus 4 is sold unlocked, even on contract. Ditto for the Huawei Ascend Mate on WIND Mobile — which will work on any carrier, by the way.

2. App Stores

This is more of an Android thing.

Android users have alternatives to the official Google Play Store — Amazon, F-Droid, SlideME, there are probably many more… Choice is great; what’s not so great is that a purchase from any one app store makes you beholden to them for software updates and downloads to new devices.

Worse are app stores that lock you in to a specific hardware manufacturer. Xiaomi’s App Market isn’t so much of a problem for English-speaking users, but Samsung Apps sure is.

How To Fight It

You can take control of the apps on your device with TitaniumBackup.

You should also understand that if you purchase something from an app store you may have to re-purchase it somewhere down the line if you want to continue using it on another system. Some good guy developers will let you transfer a software license between platforms at no extra cost — QuickOffice did this for me when I jumped to Android from Symbian.

3. User Accounts

I talked about scumbag Samsung’s S-Planner in my annotated tour of the Note 3. Basically, the Note 3’s default calendar only syncs with a Samsung account, which you might not even realize until it’s too late. If you want to use Google’s calendar you have to find and download it yourself.

I’m not sure if HTC still does this, but back when I tried the Amaze their address book had a “feature” wherein you could add a contact’s social media info to their entry. It sounds great in theory but what actually happened was that my address book ended up with a bunch of extra cruft that I manually had to strip out after I moved to a different device.

How To Fight It

Be brave, be strong… just say no. Your data belongs to you.

4. Chat

If the fall of BlackBerry has taught us anything it’s that the world does not need BBM.

I’ll go out on a limb and say the same for Apple’s iMessage. I’m sure it’s very intuitive and convenient to use, but the more you rely on it the more you’re resigning yourself to an Apple-only future. You’re also limiting yourself to an audience of other Apple users, which may not be a problem now but might be an issue somewhere down the line.

And you know that Face Time is not the only option for video chat, right? Nor is Google Hangouts, for that matter.

How To Fight It

Facebook Chat and Google Talk support XMPP, meaning that you can use either on pretty much any chat client. I myself have uninstalled Google Hangouts on my Nexus 4 — yet another benefit of root — and am currently using Gibberbot.

I’m actually not sure if there’s a standard protocol for video chat, but there are at least apps that work across multiple platforms, like Skype.

5. Social Logins

This isn’t limited to phones, but I’ll include it as food for thought.

You know when you sign up for a new service you oftentimes have the option to use Facebook or Twitter? Connecting either of those accounts to something else can be problematic in a number of ways. You are at the very least required to maintain your Facebook or Twitter account to use any “connected” service; you also run the very real risk of having that service spam Facebook or Twitter through you.

How To Fight It

Sign up for new services with an email account. If you’re worried about spam — and you should be — use a dedicated address solely for this purpose.

Please note that nothing I’ve written here was meant to chastise people who use subsidized devices, Face Time or whatever. My only goal is to get you thinking about how companies try to pigeonhole you, and provide you with some tools to break free.