How to become device agnostic and what it means for your data

Written by Mike Street on 29th October 2019

No comments

/dɪˈvʌɪs aɡˈnɒstɪk/

  Allow the user to view, edit and add to their data regardless of the technology used 

Last month my phone had to be sent off for repair. For a lot of people, sending off their mobile phone would bring on “the fear”. Worries about losing data and “what if I need that” start to settle in. “How do I back up my data?” becomes the new thought occupying your mind for days, until you eventually have to give in and send off your phone regardless. These feelings could also be found in someone who is getting a new phone, be it from the same vendor (Apple/Android) or swithcing to the "dark side" (not sure if that is going from Apple to Android or the other way round - it depends which group of fanboys you talk to).

With the modern age, everything has gone digital. No more do we need to trudge to a camera shop to get our films developed, long are the days we rushed home, dug out the AV cable and plugged our video camera into the TV (which was deeper than it was wide) to re-watch Darren falling off his bike while trying to jump over that kerb – and when was the last time anyone used an address book?

With all the information we need on our digital devices, we can now re-watch that video instantly or get a phone number using a few taps, so it’s no wonder that with the sudden loss of a device (and with it the loss of convenience) that panic and frustration can quickly take hold. The problem is that electronics can break - often we can recover the data on them, but sometimes it is gone for good.

With the above in mind, I was actually surprised to realise something while my phone was being repaired. As I was setting up the loan phone from my carrier, where I had expected anxiety, I instead noticed how calm I felt, which can be attributed to how device agnostic I had actually made myself over the last few years. 

Being “device agnostic” refers to the ability to access your data, regardless of the method or device. The device should merely determine and enhance (or deteriorate) the user experience, rather than restrict the access to the data - this same methodology is applied to web development - why should mobile users get access to less content?!

So how does one achieve this perfect zen, this complete independence from any one gadget? I have the answer for you, it’s the cloud.

I feel like this is time for a slight warning -  I am not saying this is a definitive guide, but it might help you on your path of agnosticism, also, don’t expect to do this in half an hour one evening. This is a lot of time investment with taking its path but it is well worth it - in my opinion.

With the emergence of “the cloud” over the last few years (spoiler: “the cloud” has always existed in some form or another, it is just a fancy name for the same thing), a whole host of SaaS (Software as a Service) products have cropped up which break the traditional “buy it once for a lifetime” model and move to a subscription based service approach. 

Many SaaS products provide a free tier for limited data storage or functionality - be wary of these as the ago-old adiom applies “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”. Generally this means that if there is no money exchanged, the company is likely to be selling your data and personal information for monetary gain - companies have to get revenue from somewhere. One thing to note is that you can never be 100% certain that just because you’re paying a company to store your data, it doesn’t mean they aren’t selling it for extra profit.

If you are comfortable with big conglomerates using your data, then there are some fantastic services you can take advantage of.  If you don’t trust, or don’t want to use a big company with your data (think Google or Apple) you can splash a bit of cash and make a “cloud” of your own. A cloud is a server, which you can set up at home by either using an old computer or by purchasing a dedicated machine, like a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device which can store you data & install your own apps. 

The benefits of a NAS is, once set up, it is an always-on machine which you can access from anywhere in the world.

Ecosystems

Below I’ve listed out categories for problems you may be trying to solve. Under each category I’ve listed several services which help solve this problem. You may notice that several problems can be solved with one service or suite of services. Be wary about putting all your digital eggs in one SaaS basket, as you are relying on the service staying in business for you to be able to access your data.

Again, the topic of big conglomerates comes up. These may have the aforementioned potential selling-your-data-for-profit down-side, they do have the advantage of having millions of pounds turnover (probably from selling other people’s data) which means they are a lot less likely to go under which makes your data “more secure”.

Please note: No matter which approach you go for, remember to read the terms and conditions (and some research into the potential-shadiness of your preferred company) before pressing the sign-up button.

Photos

This is the one most people worry about when losing their device. All the photos, all the memories. Things that were once kept in a box in a cupboard or in the loft for you to while away an afternoon looking through. Instead, they are now on your phone, kept for the memories or sent to friends for the laughs.

How can you ensure that even if your device is lost, broken or stolen that you can still find your photos? There are several options. All of the services listed below have an auto backup option, meaning you won’t have to remember to keep uploading those precious memories.

  • [FREE] Google Photos - The most popular option by far (based on our office). Google Photos allows for free, unlimited backups of your photos - just not at full resolution. It allows you to categorise, tag and (if you are in America) group by faces. The search is hugely powerful - you can search by keyword (e.g. Car will show you any picture where it thinks there is a car) or even by emoji. Google photos is available via the website, or apps on your devices 
  • [PAID] Amazon Photos - A similar service but from the international go-to online shop, it is included when you pay for Amazon Prime service.
  • [PAID] iCloud - Apple’s answer to Google’s offering. You can sync straight from your i-devices and is great if all your devices are of the Apple variety. This falls down, however, if you wish to use an android device to back up your photos 
  • [PAID / FREE] Dropbox, Box, OneDrive - If you’re not keen on giving the “Big 3” your data, there are several, less photo focused, alternatives. Dropbox, Box and OneDrive all offer apps allowing you to sync your photos - but the files get bundled in with anything else you have stored there. You get some free storage initially but may wish to upgrade with paid-for storage should you have more than 5 photos.
  • [FREE] Plex, Nextcloud, Owncloud - If you are wary about giving anyone your photos, you can set up your own cloud, with either Nextcloud or Owncloud. Both of these are a self hosted version of Dropbox/Box. The alternative is Plex, a self-hosted media server with photo backups. With either of these, you will need somewhere to host your data, be it a computer in your house or a NAS. You can also set them up on remote servers if you are that way inclined

Documents & Files

You’ve got your childhood photographic memories sorted, but what about all those word documents you have kicking about your computer? 

  • [FREE] Google Drive - Google’s offering on the “general document space” is a bit clunky with its navigation. However, it does have the huge added advantage of being able to make spreadsheets, documents and presentations without needing a single bit of software on your device (except connection to the internet)
  • [PAID / FREE] Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, Nextcloud - This is the category where these dedicated “cloud drives” really shine. Great interfaces and they make it easy to navigate and share documents and folders. You can even make your files publicly accessible if you wanted anyone to have your data. Nextcloud is the self hosted version of the others.

Music

If, like me, you spent hours crafting your music library, ensuring each file was exactly where it should be, using something like Picard to add obscure meta-data such as the record label, then moving to the cloud (or even worse, dumping it for a streaming service) will be heart wrenching. Fear not, however, for most streaming services take as much care over their catalog as you ever did. 

  • [PAID / FREE] Spotify - Spotify is the big gun in the streaming service industry. Most people have heard of it and a lot of people subscribe. They do free plans with adverts or subscription plans for you or your family.
  • [PAID] Amazon Music - much like Amazon Photos, Amazon music comes with your Prime subscription, so you need to pay for that to get access. It has a similar selection in music to Spotify
  • [PAID] Tidal - If you’re an audiophile and want a less popular service, then Tidal is for you. Rumour has it that artists get more of your money when signing up to the service.
  • [PAID] Soundcloud - Once a place for bands to upload their original material, Soundcloud has created a “Pro” paid-for version, so you can check out the likes of Taylor Swift or Rage Against Machine alongside that band you heard down the pub the other day.
  • [FREE] Plex - Plex is the free, self-hosted alternative which uses the music library you own. All your organising and categorising would pay off with Plex as it scans your files for the meta information. Plex can run on any machine, but for 24/7 access it is best to run it on a server or NAS. You can then enable cloud access meaning you can listen to your tunes anywhere.

Activity Tracking

For those fitness freaks, it's great to make sure we track every last mile exercised. Be it going nowhere on a treadmill or hitting the hills on a bike, it’s good to know how far, for how long and how hard. Smart phones have these kind of apps built in - be it Apple Health or Google Fit, it’s tempting to use the built-in apps. The trouble is, as with most built-in software, it is hard to get your data out and almost-impossible to migrate it to a different service.

With that in mind, it’s best to use a third-party service which can be used on all your devices. There are a whole host of apps out there, such as MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, but below are my personal favourites:

  • [PAID / FREE] Strava - the go-to activity tracking app for cyclists and runners. The features it has are numerous. The free version is great, but if you want more analysis you can pay for “Summit”
  • [FREE] Fitbit / Garmin - Both Fitbit and Garmin offer free data analysis when you purchase one of their devices, so there is some money involved. Both services sync the data up to the cloud, which means you can access your information from the web and any device you are signed into. They also both sync with Strava - for collating your “activities” - such as a run or bike ride

Passwords

Using the same password for everything is not very good, however, remembering lots of different passwords is hard. Asking your browser to remember your passwords is one solution, however, if your browser disappears (as it is attached to your phone) you will, potentially, lose all your passwords. Using a cloud-based password manager means you sign in and your passwords are there. Most password managers have the ability to lock out or deauthorise a device should the worst happen.

  • [PAID] 1Password  -When you say “Password Manager” to any one in the infosec world, 1Password will most likely be the one they suggest. Secure, lovely interface and user experience and, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. They have recently moved to a monthly fee, which is a shame, but worth it.
  • [PAID / FREE] LastPass - 1Password’s main competitor - not as slick as 1Pasword but they do offer a free tier
  • [FREE] Firefox Lockwise - Recent launch from the browser manufacturer, this has a mobile app and works in Firefox if that is your jam

Final thoughts

As you can see, for each problem there are often several solutions. Except for time in setting it up, I see no major benefit in using the phone company’s built in software. Sure it is easier to begin with, but if you ever plan to change your hardware, that is where SasS solutions really come into their own.

I’m sure there are apple fans-boys unable to sleep after reading this post, protesting that iCloud does everything, which is true. However, as Apple slowly increase the price of their hardware and decrease the quality of service, more and more people are moving away from their ecosystem and suddenly struggling to extract their data (this last sentence may be based solely on 2 friends of mine).

Manufacturer solutions are not the only way. Explore your options, find what works best and enjoy having access to your data.

Anything you disagree with? Anything you would like to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.

This article was posted in Musings by Mike Street

  • Mike Street

    Mike Street

    Mike is our front-end developer who spends his days buried in CSS and Gulp. His evenings and weekends are spent tinkering with electronics and riding bikes. mikestreety.co.uk

Comments

No comments have yet been posted, be the first to comment by using the form below:

Post a comment

*
*
You are currently offline. Some pages or content may fail to load.