[This article originally appeared on Slaw.ca, January 16, 2014]
Google’s Android operating system is open source. The rest of the software on your Android tablet or smart phone may be a mixture of commercial, freemium, and other business models, including free, ad-driven apps. Lawyers and other legal professionals will find high quality open source apps in the Google Play store but you can get to them more cleanly by using the F-Droid package manager.
Alternate Android app stores abound: Amazon has one, as do Opera and many of the phone makers. Amazon’s store is an app on your device, and offers a free app each day. Opera is only a Web site, where you download the application as an apk file (like a Microsoft Word document is a doc or docx file). Once downloaded, you open the file and it installs the app.
F-Droid is a bit more like the Amazon store. You download the F-Droid app from its Web site and can then access the open source projects in its catalog. Or, more appropriately and more familiarly to people who use an open source operating system, its repo or repository. Just as you would on Ubuntu, you can check for updates – both to apps you’ve installed but also for new open source apps – and manage your apps. You don’t have to have the F-Droid app though; you can browse the F-Droid site and go directly to the Web site of the developer and download the apk file there.
Open source apps are often hiding in plain site. The thing that struck me as I played around with F-Droid was how many open source apps I had already installed. The repo is smaller than the Google Play store, with just over 800 apps in it. This means you can effectively browse through it and look at every app.
There were the apps that I was already using and was gratified to see were open source, like:
- K9 Mail (Play Store) I’ve used this e-mail software on and off for my IMAP e-mail accounts and it is the most flexible that I’ve found in handling a variety of security handshakes (SSL, TSL, StartTLS) with e-mail servers;
- Quill (Play Store) a handwriting note book app which is free through F-Droid and $1 on Play.
- PageTurner (Play Store) e-book reader, which has the nice feature of allowing you to page left-to-right or up-down. It can connect directly to your personal e-book library if you’re using the open source e-book library manager Calibre or to other online e-book servers that support OPDS, like O’Reilly Media and Project Gutenberg. This is on my list as a potential delivery method for making e-books available to e-readers within our library, but it would work as well or better in an environment like a law firm or law school;
- Firefox (Play Store) the popular Web browser;
- Android VNC (Play Store), which allows you to remotely connect to other computers running VNC servers, and is nice to have in case your Microsoft RDP client won’t connect.
It’s not all work, though! F-Droid has NPR’s news app and the Shortyz crossword download app which will grab puzzles from the New York Times, LA Times, and other online sites. Not surprisingly, there are also a significant number of security apps, including the anonymous TOR Orbot client that provides access to the dark Web, and the SuperGenPass password creator.
Apps with a Twist
What I began to notice, though, was that some of the apps were similar to things I was running but offered a twist. For example, I love Google’s Sky Map app. But the one in the F-Droid catalog explains that it is built on the same code but without the non-free parts, including Google Analytics.
There were also some apps that, because they were open source, I decided to use instead of their Google Play Store counterparts. These include:
- AFWall+, a firewall for Android. This wouldn’t work for everyone because you need toroot your device but I’ve come to rely on the firewall. In particular, I like that it allows me to block Internet access app-by-app so that, even if it is an ad-based app, I can stop it from downloading or connecting to the Internet without me being aware of it;
- Barcode Scanner, which scans bar and QR codes and is used in a variety of other F-Droid apps, like Scanner for Zotero, Book Catalogue, and Bookworm.
Apps for Information Delivery in a Law Firm
What I also found were a number of apps that would be useful in a law firm environment where you had a sophisticated set of information tools. For example, if your Sharepoint 2013(but not Sharepoint Online) server has the CMIS Producer installed and activated, or you’re on an open source content management system like AlFresco or Nuxeo, you could use theCMIS Browser to connect from your tablet.
A couple of the others I’m testing out include Diktofon – voice to text notes – and ePUBator, which allows you to convert a PDF into an ePUB format. QuickDroid is an alternate search tool, that works like Launchy for Windows: type in your keyword and it will return apps, contacts and filenames that match your term. These are all tools for which Google or some other commercial provider has an offering. I’m increasingly leaning towards apps that are unlikely to save my usage, anonymized or not, into a commercial databank.
Open source is a mature option in just about any software arena and mobile apps are no different. Whether you access them through F-Droid, Google Play, or directly, open source apps can bring the same power and greater ease of mind for the same price as commercial, free apps.