This weekend I saw something truly ridiculous. An Android TV device running the latest version of Android TV apparently (it had an update a few weeks ago to 8.0) that completely refused to play YouTube videos.
The device, Xiaomi Mibox, I picked up a couple of years ago and never used was gifted to a friend of mine and used somewhat regularly over the last 10 or so months. I don’t know the problem but I suspect the device doesn’t support the format (possibly DRM?) Google is putting on the advertising on YouTube videos but whatever the issue it seems ludicrous that a Google operating system won’t play videos from a Google service. It doesn’t even give an error message, it just spins and spins and spins.
Digging through the apps installed to see if a recent YouTube app update had broken things, we saw that Android TV ships with a print spooler. No idea why a set top box for a TV would need one but it reaffirmed my frustration with Android as an operating system. If Android were just a series of packages for a traditional GNU/Linux system the print spooler would be easily removed when building for a television set top box but instead we have a fragmented mess where devices frequently ship violating the GPL, or with outdated drivers or a lack of updates from whoever might update things. It is free software often in name only with a kludge of binary drivers and proprietary components jammed into a device to get it working.
Contrasting this to the other popular proprietary operating system for such devices: iOS or tvOS or whatever nonsense branding is being currently applied and it’s clear that Apple’s approach works well for the half dozen or so devices they produce but probably would fail just as spectacularly if they tried to run it on the thousands of doodads that run some flavor of Android in 2018.
In the end, we unplugged it and plugged in an old $20 Roku device and with a fresh pair of batteries in the remote and a quick software update worked just fine and played YouTube videos the way they were meant to be played: that is to say, at all.
I wonder what this might look like with a standard computer running a desktop OS and some kind of decent remote control solution. Maybe such a thing exists, but I’ve not heard of it.
I have to say I do and I mostly do. So here we are, a little over a year after my Google Pixel went into a reboot loop just after charging it and promptly went into a drawer. Out came the iPhone SE I had got when I exchanged an Apple TV I’d won at OSCON. I used that for several months before dropping it one too many times on the cold night of celebrating the 21st anniversary of the NeXT/Apple merger. Oops. I blame the Dr. Gil Amelio impressions.
Briefly I used an iPhone 6 Plus before being given a new iPhone 8 as part of my job. Courageously I struggle every day with its proprietary headphone jack (I carry two sets of earbuds everywhere — one for my laptop and one for my phone — and as much as I begrudge the proprietary connector they are very nice and comfortable when you’re on a lot of meeting calls) and long for the day where I can consider retrofitting one. But yes, even dyed in the wool free software folk use smartphones and I’m not patient enough to do the Replicant route these days after many an attempt over the years from both versions of the OpenMoko, to various HTC Dream phones in various states of liberation. Heck, I even bought an iPad recently when I found out the occasional travel tablet I had from Google wasn’t supported anymore but I will admit it doesn’t get used very much at all but it is quite nice to use on a train. I am still very much committed to using free software on my actual laptop as the pile of assorted machines on the floor of my messy apartment will confirm with my day to day machine remaining the Dell XPS I spoke about last year.
Back to the iPhone. When I first switched I figured I’d hate it and so I didn’t make much effort to integrate things. Instead I just downloaded the various Google apps to the iPhone and carried on my the same account I’d used on my Pixel phone and the half dozen or so Android phones I’d used prior to that. But recently I was at XOXOFEST in Portland and hanging out with various IndieWeb people including Tantek (who has an interesting no-phone setup that involves a Me-Fi device and a couple of iPod Touch devices, with Firefox as their browser) — it got me thinking about using Firefox as my main browser for the phone.
State of the Union
Apple still doesn’t let alternate browser engines to run on iOS for somereason, and as a result Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Firefox Focus and even Microsoft’s Edge browser all use WebKit and all use the same version of WebKit as each other. If only we could have had Microsoft adopt WebKit for Edge for Windows, there would be one less engine to worry about although I’ve never encountered Edge in the wild actually being used by anyone as I suspect everyone on Windows gets pushed to install Chrome pretty quickly these days but I’m happy to be wrong on this point. Hopefully everyone installs Firefox instead after reading this.
(To me, the whole iOS browser saga is a bit like making your own “browser” on Windows in Visual Basic by adding the Browser object to a form and slapping a couple of buttons on it, but I suspect Apple wouldn’t approve such an app which dashes my hopes of becoming an instant browser vendor I suppose.)
Despite the one and only engine rule, all of these browsers do things a little differently:
Safari who likes to take over occasionally and frustrate me no end.
Firefox Focus which is a great browser (often coupled with a VPN) for looking at sites with tons of ads and pop ups and other nasties. Clears itself on exit. Handy for looking up flight prices and searching things outside of your browsers fingerprint of your habits too.
Chrome on iOS neatly integrates with Google’s various sites and offers its own take on private browsing via incognito mode but does not seem to offer anything by way of blocking ads, which is a little frustrating.
And then there’s Firefox, which seems to do a great job of blocking things even if the user interface is a little cluttered in places I am enjoying using it a lot more than I thought. In particular, it has a dedicated reading mode feature (Safari has this too and it was one of the few things I’d occasionally use it for) and seems to have an actual proper download feature. It also lets me copy virtually any image to the clipboard which Chrome does not.
So for now I’m going to keep using my iPhone. I have my eye on Purism and their phone project but I suspect it’ll be a while before it’ll be usable to the level where I don’t feel like I have to sysadmin my phone. Until then I’m probably going to keep using the iPhone.
I found out that Peter Baird Olson, aka Peabo from the FSF died last week in a yacht explosion. I spoke to him a few weeks ago at LibrePlanet 2017. Sorry to hear that he has died, but it’s nice to know he was still yachting until the end.
Peabo was an interesting character. He liked electronics and science fiction and soup, and we all knew that about him. What most people didn’t know so well was his love of yachting.
He was in my pilot, Good Call Bad Call a few years ago. I’ll dig up some footage of him for a memorial.