Replacing iCloud with Open Source alternatives

I am mostly using devices built by Apple in my day to day life. They perform well, Apple Care has not let me down (yet) and most importantly they get out of my way. Regular system updates usually do not break anything and features shipped work (most of the time) as advertised. While I am still happy with all my devices I see this to not necessarily be true in future. So I set out to see if I can replace all (or some of) the things that make an Apple only life so comfortable with open source alternatives. Other than last time the experience was actually far better than expected!

Before we jump in let me give you a bit more context on the “why”. For the last 12 years I am nearly exclusively using Macs and iPhones since the release of the 3g. I use iPads since the first one was released - yeah, the anaemic one. I even got the first Apple Watch as I had to get an app to play nicely with it for an AppStore feature. Over all these years Apple shipped things not truly innovative, but new and better than most that came before them. Software worked, even dreaded releases such as Leopard. (During this time I always had a Windows system nearby (only skipped ME, 8 and Vista) and more than enough Linux boxes around, so I am comfortable with all three major OSs - sorry if this triggers BSD fans.)

In this article I will often state that something works well. According to the Internet I am wrong. Your experience may vary :)

But lately Apple slipped more than once. In my opinion they missed market opportunities or simply try to delay them to capitalise on existing devices - foldable phones replacing the need for an iPad for example. The iPad despite all the love it receives still feels mostly like a media consumption device if you are not an artist or are willing to jump through some hoops. While I am still happy, I see a future where I mostly work on a self built Windows or Linux - the year of Linux on the desktop is right around then, right? - machine and potentially carry a Z Fold as a daily driver.

Swapping my desktop should in theory be pretty easy. I have ten-ish applications installed via the AppStore and that is it. All other work happens inside of Linux VMs. Yet there are QOL things I would desperately miss: Shared clipboards, Keychain, iCloud for files, contacts and calendar sync. Having only Apple devices and using an iCloud account means my data is always available and synced in a way that does not randomly break for me. I know people have different experiences with Apple services, but they worked well so far.

The good news is there are solid alternatives for most of the things I appreciate in an Apple only ecosystem.

I can easily replace Keychain with Bitwarden. I actually run my own server using Vaultwarden for credentials and data I need on my Windows laptop, gaming system or Android phone. It works nearly well as Keychain and integrates nicely with browsers. Autofilling TOTP does not seem to work, which is a nice comfort feature Keychain provides and I got to admit I think Passkeys are a really good idea for most accounts.

File, contact and calendar sync using NextCloud works exceptionally well for me. The clients are decent and standard protocols are used. There is not much to say, it works. I think this is one of the easiest transitions out there if you are already using a third party tool for file sharing. You simply install a different client from here on.

Setting up contacts and calendars is a bit tedious, but also done with a few clicks.

I gave up on shared clipboards. There are some apps out there, OSS and paid. But none that are truly convincing or that could integrate deep enough with the system to provide a seamless experience. I rather miss out on the feature and share a text note via NextCloud than mess with the alternatives. Windows and Android seem to integrate nicely, so changing the walled garden might be a solution for this.

iMessage and FaceTime are two apps I use frequently and which “just work”. I run my own Matrix server which is used by 18 people right now. Have I ever complained about how annoying it is to add new devices to your account? The QRCode might or might not work, you compare emojis and are reminded to “review logins” often enough that it gets annoying. Considering all the alternatives out there trying to establish “yet another messenger” might be tough if people are not aligned on going independent. Jitsi integration seems to be getting better, but it does not live up to FaceTime and does not come close to Zoom.

This is actually it. Sure, there are one or two utilities like Arq or BBEdit I have to look for an alternative, but those will not be a dealbreaker. Arq would be available on Windows. There is simply no alternative to BBEdit I am aware of. I am actively using most of the alternatives mentioned above together with iCloud. And to my own joy I self host all of them. Relying solely on them would be feasible for me, even if all have one or two minor drawbacks, missing features or uncomfortable implementation. But OSS came a very long way since I last tried replacing individual features 5 years ago or so. I really appreciate all the work the maintainers and community put it to get us to the point where I can recommend OSS projects as alternative to closed source ones.

On the mobile side I already use my Android test phone from time to time. I do not like most of the apps or overall user experience. But it is workable. And having a foldable tablet with me which I can even hook up to a monitor for a good enough desktop experience would be a real win. But I am planning to make decisions on an individual device basis when I am due for an upgrade and if I find Apples offering not appealing enough to spend a lot of money on.

I want to point out that with a decrease in tech-savviness the likelihood of a successful transition will decrease. Element asking you to validate sessions all the time. Bitwarden forcing you to configure offline sync and intervals. Adding calendars to a computer manually instead of them just appearing. Small things like this which Apple perfected in a well rounded, $10 subscription service usually annoy “regular users”. So if you are planning to bring people such as your family along for the ride expect to be on call for some tech support. On the other hand if you are tech savvy, vibe with the OSS spirit, do not shy away from a bit manual work or simply want to be independent from corporations who usually do not care about you I would encourage you to give the software listed above a shot.

>> posted on August 23, 2022 in #self-hosting