How to minimize device lock-in and make it easier to migrate to a new smartphone

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Device lock-in is a term often thrown about. For example, one of the criticisms I often hear about Apple is you’ll be “locked into their ecosystem.” The implication being if you buy an Apple/Android/Whatever phone, getting off that platform will be difficult. The fact is, lots of things in our lives have lock-in.

I buy Gillette razors, so I’m locked into that brand. I have a Keurig coffee maker, so I’m locked into K-cups. I also have Apple and Android devices, so I have some lock-in to those two brands. Granted, it’s cheaper to move away from my razors than a smartphone.

Still, there are steps you can take to make switching devices a little easier. Throughout this article I will talk about the different types of lock-in you’ll experience with your mobile devices and how to minimize the hassle if you swap platforms.

Where I’m locked-in

The bulk of the time when I’m working on something, it’s on an Apple device. I have a MacBook Pro, and iPad 3 and an iPhone 5. My Android Nexus 7 tablet sees some use, and a distant last is my Kindle.

The biggest lock-in for me is in apps. This is pretty normal, and would happen regardless of the platform I’m on. Even my work laptop has some lock-in with Microsoft Visio. The apps I primarily use on my iOS devices are Microsoft Word and Excel, Pages and Numbers, Byword, Kindle, Music/iTunes, Positive Grid JamUP, Twitter and Pocket. On my Android devices I use Kindle, Twitter, and the Arkham Horror Companion (an app that handles some of the cards for the board game Arkham Horror. There is an iOS version of an Arkham Horror Toolkit, but I prefer the Android version because it’s a little easier to use and includes the cards for all of the expansions.

My guidelines for handling lock-in

If we accept as a given that lock-in is almost impossible to avoid, I have a few guidelines to try to minimize the impact.

While the apps are going to be specific to the platform, my main goal is to select apps where the data resides outside the app in a cloud service I can access from any app. Byword, for example, uses Dropbox to store its files. If the app doesn’t allow the data outside of its comfy little silo, my second guideline is the app should be cross-platform. The Kindle app is available for most devices, as is Comixology. I have a lot of magazines in Zinio, and, again it’s cross-platform.

Apps like iWork fall into a gray area for me. While the file format is proprietary, it’s unlikely I’ll be moving completely away from Apple for a long time. That said, if that happens, the files can be exported as text files, and the web apps are available as well. While I use OmniFocus for my task management program, my actual task-tracking needs are pretty basic and can be easily recreated in a different platform if I needed to. I’ve given some thought to moving to a Google tasks-based system so I can have access to my tasks on Android.

Since iBooks are only available on Apple devices, I don’t buy many of them. Unless a book I want is only available through the iBookstore, I’ll buy it elsewhere. I’d also have to really want the book, too. So far, I’ve only bought a few songbooks and an iOS programming book on iBooks.

The way I have things set up now, while I’m locked into some vendors (Amazon being the largest), the actual platform that I use the apps on I’m fairly confident I could migrate off of if I needed to.

What to keep in mind if you migrate

If you’re going to migrate off a device platform, the first recommendation is to make sure the reason you’re moving away from a platform isn’t fixable. Googling some of the frustrations you’re having might yield some solutions. Or it could frustrate you even more; the internet is funny that way.

If you’re moving from an iPhone to an Android device, it’s important to make sure you deactivate and sign out of iMessage (and all iCloud services, for that matter). If you don’t, bad things like not getting your text messages might happen.

Moving data from individual apps is best handled through a Cloud service like Dropbox if the app supports it. One nice thing about iCloud Drive in iOS 8 is you’ll be able to access your app’s iCloud data from your Mac or PC.

The biggest obstacle for me if I migrate to a new platform is my Music library. I use iTunes Match. iTunes, of course, is not available on other mobile platforms. Google Play, however, is available on multiple platforms. However, moving your music from iTunes to Google may not be a one-step process. This article does a decent job of outlining how to use Google Play Music Manager to upload your music to Google. If you have all of your music downloaded already, it will handle the upload easily. However, if like me, you don’t download much music and instead use a service like iTunes Match, you might have to download the music before using Google Play Music Manager.

The biggest fear I have is that a large company like Amazon will go out of the ebook business, or shut down. This isn’t likely to happen, and fortunately, some of their books are sold without DRM so I can archive them. Similarly, Comixology also makes some titles available for download without DRM. However, I used to use Fictionwise for my ebooks purchases and they are no longer around. I was, however, able to remove the DRM on my purchases before they went under.

Final thoughts

Like it or not, lock-in is something we have to deal with on our digital devices. Companies have little incentive to make it easy to use their data outside of their infrastructure. If you are dealing with data that exports cleanly, like a text file, you’ll be able to use your data on multiple devices easily.

It’s important to pick your battles with lock-in. In my case, I try to minimize lock-in to a specific device manager, but cave on being locked-into a vendor like Amazon.

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