Why I am Ditching TrueCaller

Why I am Ditching Truecaller

It is with a heavy heart, that I am announcing, that as of today, April something 2016, I am abandoning TrueCaller. To understand why I am ditching TrueCaller, you’ll need a little background. You see, I started my relationship with the app several years ago, and it wasn’t all bad. In fact, like many relationships, most of it was good.

My History (as it relates to TrueCaller)

I have been using Android for many years. I’m active in the Android community, I’m an experienced Android Developer, and an absolute Android enthusiast. Like most of those passionate about something, it started as a casual relationship. My first Android phone was a bit of a puzzle to me at first, and was the result of being forced to switch away from my old Nextel plan. Sprint had been offering incentives for quite a while to users of Nextel phones to move away from Nextel and into a Sprint plan so they could shut down the old IDEN towers – Nextel wasn’t just a cellular provider, but a brand on the technology that was responsible for the unique PTT (Push-to-talk) feature included in all Nextel phones and service plans. By this time, IDEN was considered an obsolete cellular technology and the towers could be repurposed for newer technologies like 4g, and 4gLTE. In Sprint’s case, this “new” LTE technology was WIMAX, at least for their lower cost 4g plans throigh MVNOs like Boost Mobile.  It was actually a technology owned by Clearwire, who had made some pretty bad – ultimately fatal – deals to provide Sprint with unlimited bandwidth at a fixed cost, which led to Clearwire’s insolvency and eventual acquisition by Sprint (I’m sure it was just a total coincidence that Sprint screwed them, abused their agreement with them to make them nearly worthless, and then acquired them). But I seem to be getting off track, so I will spare you additional detail for now.

So, the short story is that I did get rid of the Nextel Phone and, with a juicy incentive from Sprint, move over to the Boost Mobile Network. Boost Mobile Service was unlimited talk, text, and 4g data for $40/month, which went down to $35/month after several consecutive payments or “reboosts”. They gave me a free phone for it, which lasted me about a week. Now that I had unlimited 4g (WIMAX), I wanted to do what I could to harness that power.  I certainly couldn’t do it on a flip phone. So I went to BestBuy and found exactly what I needed – a Samsung Galaxy SII.  There were several versions of this phone made by Samsung – this one was referred to as the “Epic Touch 4G” in the development community.  I LOVED IT! No physical buttons, an OLED screen, and all around just a beautiful device. It is because of that phone that I fell in love with Android.

The Samsung Galaxy SII Epic Touch 4G also just happened to be one of the most flashable, fixible, experiment able phones in the entire Android device field. So, I spent many hours learning about Android – using it, modding it, flashing it, troubleshooting it, and developing it. From this point I was a pure Android enthusiast. Since I hadn’t spent much time with the default “Touchwiz” based ROM on the Galaxy SII, and spent most of my time with custom ROMs, I’m pretty sure I could not have told you what Touchwiz was if you’d asked, and I certainly couldn’t have differentiated Samsung’s Touchwiz from any other ROM.  They were all just Android to me – many different flavors of it, but Android nonetheless.

The next Android phone that I purchased was a Samsung Galaxy S4. I had loved the SII so much, I couldn’t wait.to get my hands on the S4.  Once I did, it took me about a day before I had a clear understanding of what Touchwiz was, and I didn’t like it.  It was an ugly, bloated, choppy, gimmick ridden version of Android that had me constantly looking for a place to turn off “kid-mode”. Unfortunately, I found out that the Galaxy S4 didn’t have a kid mode. The romper room interface I was laboring through was actually meant for adults. It was the one I was stuck with – at least until I found out how to root and flash this guy – and now with a $700+ handset and patience a requirement, that could be a little while. Well, it could have been, but it wasn’t. It was a brand new phone, but.I couldn’t stand it. I had to do something.

Enter CyanogenMod

I had to do something, but I wasn’t sure what.  I likes the hardware on the phone, but the software ruined the entire experience.  If I could get a feature/gimmick to work from time to time, it was only momentary. It was supposed to unlock with my face, then stay on while I was watching it, then scroll when I moved my eyes – it didn’t seem to work all at once and by the time I was done trying, I felt like the phone had been hanging from my eyeballs for as much time. On my Samsung Galaxy SII, I had tried many different ROMs, and there were many more available that I never had the chance to. Many of these were organized into what is called a “one-click-root”, which is just what it sounds like – one on the executable file and the program does the rest: connecting to the phone, uploading the image, flashing the phone including custom recovery, rebooting as necessary, wiping, and the final startup. This option wasn’t available after the SII (with a few exceptions), so flashing the Samsung Galaxy S4 was a bit more involved. Before long, I was pretty good at it – you had to be in order to run cutom ROMs. While there are many stable custom ROMs today, a few years ago, they were few and far between. Even today, custom ROMs from individual developers don’t have the rigerous quality control and certification process of official ROMs from manufacturers and a few select third parties – not even close.

There is a company that lies somewhere in the middle of all that. The company is CyanogenMod – A company that makes a custom ROM for a huge array of Android devices – they aren’t (usually) the official ROM for any of those devices, but they do make their “brand” of ROM for almost every device out there. They have a sizeable development team. And their operating system is a highly customizable version of AOSP – the Android Open Source Project – that’s the generic, “pure” version of Android that is the basis for ALL other ROMs. While most manufacturers believe that heavy customization of Android and making it look different provides value to their device that it otherwise wouldn’t have – like Samsung’s feature laden Touchwiz, CyanogenMod believes in offering an experience that is as close to the pure AOSP experience as possible, but providing the user with an easy setup and the addition of the ability to customize many of the AOSP features. In fact, it’s some of these additions that we all benefit from when they are included in pure AOSP Android later on.

CyanogenMod takes Android ROM development seriously. Most of their offerings now even include an installer for easy installation on just about every phone. For devices not officially supported, there is usually still unofficial support from them or from a team that ports the operating system to a specific device. In other words, if an Android capable device is still in use by even a handful of people, there is probably a CyanogenMod ROM available for it, either officially or non-officially. It’s the most consistently available Android platform in the world.

The reason I’m explaining this is that I had tried several custom ROMs on my Samsung Galaxy S4. Some of them were terrible and some of them were quite good. But my livelihood depends on my Android device – not necessarily as a phone, but as a connection to the Internet that is available to me at all times in all places. And the device I use for work cannot be less than 100% reliable. And regardless of how good custom ROMs get, and how enjoyable they can be to use, they always fall into the “ezperimental” category. I know some of the best Android developers in the world, and with all due respect to them, you simply cannot provide 100% stability in something so complex with one, or a handful of people, and no statistically valid way of doing quality assurance. The amount of time it would take for an individual to test a custom version of Android fully would exceed the useful lifetime of the operating system. In other words, it’s not possible for a custom ROM to have the same degree of stability that a fully baked, tested, and certified ROM would.

In fairness to the individual developers, not EVERY edition of CyanogenMod ROMs are completely stable. In fact, they are published accordingly – only a fraction of the ROMs released by CyanogenMod are marked as “stable”. In most cases, they release an updated version nightly (take that T-Mobile and Samsung), bit those releases are nightly snapshots of the version in development – they aren’t supposed to be stable, and if you update often, you’ll go from a working device to a non-working device as often as not. Features also come and go from day to day. It simply isn’t meant to be a “daily driver”. On the other hand, the stable versions they release are almost always as stable as the manufacturer’s ROMs and usually more stable. So, after “playing” with all the different ROMs out there that were available for my Samsung Galaxy S4, I decided to “settle down” and be responsible about it. I had to get something that would be extremely reliable for my phone, but I really hated the S4 generation Touchwiz tainted version of Android. Eventually, I settled on using the official release of CyanogenMod for my Galaxy S4. And it stayed that way for as long as I had the phone. It was Pure AOSP Android, it was stable, it was fast, and I loved it. CyanogenMod and my Galaxy S4 made a great team, and together, they made a great device. What does this have to do with TrueCaller? Well not much yet, except that we’re on the path to what made me a diehard fan of TrueCaller in the first place – the device that introduced me to TrueCaller, and the perfect storm that made me think that TrueCaller was the best thing since sliced bread – the OnePlus One. That is, the Phone called the “One” from the company called “OnePlus”.

Enter OnePlus One

The OnePlus One  was an Android Smartphone being released by the Chinese startup company OnePlus. It was founded by the former Vice President of Oppo, Pete Lau. The company planned to turn the Android world upside down by offering a full featured “Flagship Killer” with 64gb of storage, full HD display, and the very latest Snapdragon processor available for a price of about half of what people were (and still are) paying. But more exciting than any of that was that most variants of the phone, including the one being shipped to the United States, would include the first ever commercial variant of CyanogenMod – later to be differentiated from the non-commercial version through a different nomenclature. The commercial version of the operating system would be called CyanogenOS (although at the time of the shipping of the OnePlus One, that was not the case – the phones shipped as CyanogenMod phones and were branded as such). CyanogenMod 11S (the “S” is what differentiated the version number from the non commercial version). There were slight differences between the S version of Cyanogen that shipped with the OnePlus One in terms of functionality, but the biggest difference was that the S version of the Cyanogen Android Operating system would be fully tested and even certified through Google and the handset maker. That means, for the first time, CyanogenMod would be coming preinstalled on a phone along with Google Play Services. Anyone who has dabbled in custom ROMs at some point, is aware of one of the most inconvenient aspect of them – if they aren’t certified by Google, they can’t come with Google Play Services, or any Google services, installed on them – period. And this makes an Android device, well, rather useless.

You see evidence of this when the unfortunately people at work or online go for the $49 Walmart Chinese tablet special around Christmas only to find that, since the tablet isn’t Google certified, it can’t download any apps and whatever apps you can manage to sideload on it probably won’t work because a big chunk of the core OS is missing. Of course, for developers, there are workarounds for that. It’s not always simple, but Google services can be installed (not directly – it must be flashed from custom recovery). The most difficult part is getting the correct version of the dozens of version that are current at a given point in time for the exact version of Android you have – and keeping it running without frequent errors. After all, there is a reason Google makes manufacturers and developers go through a stringent security process to include Google services in the Android OS – it’s the only way to be sure it works. And there is a reason why it can take several weeks to go through this process, even when everything is right – Android, with developers modifications, working with services as complex as those that Google integrates into the platform – it’s not an easy process. But it’s necessary to get a mature operating system shipping on a device. You know, the opposite of what Microsoft did with Windows up to and including Windows 8.1.

Finally, a “CyanogenMod Phone” was being released. I mean, I probably would have bought it at twice the price. It seems too good to be tr… oh, it is… too good to be true that is. The first stumbling block I run into is that Oneplus will be selling this masterpiece by invitation only. And the rules for getting these invitations are anything but straightforward. Come on… I’d pay double! Let me pay double and just buy one! No such “luck”. You had to be good, you had to play by the rules, you had to post to their forum and be a productive (yuk) member of there community. Then, and only then, would you even have a chance of getting an invite. Like the beginning days of my career, I started out in the OnePlus forums as a “donut”, worked my way up to an “eclair”, and by posting helpful answers to people, quickly became a froyo (had to look that one up at the time because I didn’t know it was a cool term for “frozen yogurt”. Don’t claim you knew – nobody knew that – it wasn’t a “thing”. We called frozen yogurt “frozen yogurt” back in the day). I eventually earned the coveted Gingerbread title, but then it started getting tough. Each upgrade to my version/status was like an order of magnitude to upgrade. Like Donut – post 1 message, Eclair – Post 10 messages, Froyo (which nobody knew was frozen yogurt) – post 100 messages, Gingerbread – post 1000 messages, Honeycomb – post 10,000 messages and get 5,000 likes, Ice Cream Sandwich Level – post 100,000 message, get 10,000 likes, enter at least 100 different sweepstakes, winning at least one at 1,000,000:1 odds. By the time I received my invitation to purchase a OnePlus One, I had sold my soul to become a JellyBean, but found out that the level you achieve in their forums has nothing to do with whether or when you will get an invite. So, after what must have been like 5 million posts and everyone that has an android device giving me a thumbs up (trust me, you don’t want to know the Kit-Kats – they are an oddly obsessive bunch), I finally got my invite. By that time, I was so sick of disengenuous people saying “congrats” to other forum users when I knew that, given the chance, they would kill the person in cold blood and pry the device from the victim’s cold stiff hands, that I was locked and loaded waiting for someone to say “congrats” to me, so I could go off on them and tell them to cut the BS and wait until they get theirs to be happy. Saying “congrats” to me for being randomly selected to finally be able to buy a phone made me want to punch people in the face. And since that wasn’t practical, I chose to abuse them verbally.

Enter TrueCaller

Finally – I had the phone that nobody could get. In fact, I ended up getting three more invites, all of which the forum members who still didn’t have a phone, offered me their heartfelt “congrats”. As penance for my previous contempt for the bunch, I bought three of the four for myself and a couple of friends, and gave the fourth away in the forums – to the person who could write something that would most touch my cold heart over a three day period. And while I received a lot of hateful messages, and people saying “clever” things hoping that I would give them the phone, I received some really remarkable stories from people on that, who I would never had heard from otherwise. It turned out to be a great experience, but it has nothing to do with the rest of my story about TrueCaller, so maybe I’ll come back to that in another article.

The OnePlus One came with CyanogenMod preinstalled and since it had gone through the certification process with that hardware, it came as a normal phone would – with all the Google services and standard apps, but absolutely zero bloatware. I was delighted! The only other set of apps installed on the device were a small set of CyanogenMod apps. I didn’t know that at the time – it’s something I’ve only discovered recently because of my recent disappointment in TrueCaller, which I’ll get to a little bit later. The CyanogenMod apps were basically modified versions of some of the standard Android AOSP components, with small tweaks to them. These modifed components, like the dialier, the contacts, and some other items that you’d think are perfectly stock in Android, really were just small tweaks on the existing system apps to add small bits of functionality. And some of those small bits were big deals. I won’t go into all of them, but I will go into the one that is the topic of this article – TrueCaller. In the CyanogenMod 11S and 12S (or more properly, Cyanogen OS 12, I think) official builds, the standard AOSP dialer had been replaced by a similar dialer, but with this integrated functionality named “TrueCaller”. It was just part of the functionality of the phone – there was an option in the dialer to enable TrueCaller and that had been checked by default. Whenever a phone call came in, the number would be looked up and the matching information from some huge database that matched that number would be displayed on the call It was fantastic – nothing more than just a small enhancement that allowed me to see who was really calling. From there, I could easily block the caller if I wanted to, and it would block it in my dialer, just as blocking a call in the stock Android dialer would work. I used to think to myself “damn, I wish this had been available as an app for Android”, and “Cyanogen should consider releasing this as an app so other people with stock ROMs can make use of it”. As it turns out (or at least as I know now – it’s not their app, and most people probably knew that way before I did, but it’s all about the context in which things are presented – this is how I knew TrueCaller) I was just glad that this fantastic little spam-blocking, information weilding little TrueCaller thing was part of my phone’s OS because it definitely made calling and taking calls much easier. In today’s environment of cell phones being more prevalent than landlines, at least in the circles of some of us, getting the right information to appear on your phone, other than the phone number itself, certainly hasn’t been a given. It’s usually an extra monthly cost through the carrier, IF it’s available through them at all. But this little app, service, whatever it was, did a great job of filling that gap – and not with too much information and not with too little… with just the right amount of information. And when I clicked on my own profile, I was told that I was a professional user. Wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was cool with me. I am a professional user, and anything that can help confer that message to my client is a bonus I’ll be happy to enjoy.

For me, TrueCaller had become a part of my Andoid experience by default. It was the missing piece of the “phone” part of the phone and I sort of took it for granted. It was a new feature I had become used to – a feature that, frankly, seems like it should be part of Android anyway. I got used to it. At no time did I think “TrueCaller is awesome” – it just did what it was supposed to do, and it did it well.

Exit TrueCaller

Fastforward to the end of 2015. It was time for me to get a new phone, and the OnePlus had released a couple of new models. The OnePlus X, which is a fantastic phone – smaller than what I’m used to, but it’s design is a work of art – it looks like an iPhone, but much more refined and with an OLED screen. It was just a bit too small for what I needed. They also released the OnePlus 2, which was an update to the OnePlus One that I had – basically the same size, with updated hardware – the same screen resolution, and largely the same design. It was really an incremental upgrade to the OnePlus One I already had. And that would have been good enough for me to buy it, except for one thing – NO NFC! Had the OnePlusOne been without NFC, I would have been accepting of it. But by the end of 2015, with phone payments finally taking off in the US, this seemed like and absolutely foolish call on their part. Why a manufacturer who had made such tremendous inroads with their first phone model, would intentionally remove a ten cent component from the design of their second flagship phone, especially one that is basically standard equipment on every phone made in the last five years, is completely beyond me. Had they taken out an LTE band, cat 6 LTE, or some other fringe feature, I could have looked past it. I would know – but not many people would. Not everyone digs into what LTE bands a phone provides, or precisely what technologies it supports, but just about everyone will notice if a phone doesn’t support NFC. There will be functionality missing. Can you imagine upgrading to the latest phone, trying to set up Android pay so you can tap and pay with NFC and then realizing, “Oh, I can’t do that with this phone”? Or when you try to automatically pair a device with bluetooth – “I thought I could do this?”, or when you setup your phone and it doesn’t offer to let you touch the phones together to transfer your old files to your new phone – “Why did it skip that step? How do I transfer my pictures like I did last time?”: “No, you can’t”, “not any more”, and “because they took that feature out of the new phone, so you don’t”. What an absolutely terrible decision. I was personally upset about that since I was a huge supporter of this new company throughout the marketing and (rocky) rollout of their first device. I felt that they betrayed me with such a bonehead move – even embarrassed me in front of my friends. What do you say to a friend that you turned on to the OnePlus One, who loved it, and then wants to upgrade to the OnePlus Two? How do you explain to them that this great company isn’t suddenly a terrible one, and the awesome design and thoughtfulness that went into the first phone isn’t absent in the second one? They’re still a great company, and they still make a great phone with a beautiful design, but they left out this one little tiny ten cent chip. That they would still love the phone, but there are a handful of simple things that they can do now, and are used to doing now, that they simply wouldn’t be able to do with their brand new phone.

Which is a perfect segue to me upgrading to my latest phone and never again seeing the TrueCaller I knew.

The first step in recovery is admitting that you have a problem. When it comes to mobile devices, I have a problem. I’m absolutely addicted to them. I love them. I love the sleek and sexy design of the Samsung Galaxy Edge, I love the squareness and flatness of the Samsung Galaxy Note, I’m IN love the simplicity and the tantalizing top and bottom curves of the Nexus 5, and with that same non-descript yet totally unique curve on the LG G3. Even the odd and chunky lines on the Motorola phones that I hate, I actually love, especially in their exaggerated form on the whale of a Nexus 6, the hugeness and awkwardness I love. I love the ugly camera hump, which isn’t a hump, just looks like a hump, and doesn’t deliver the functionality you would expect from such a humpy looking camera apparatus on the Nexus 6+, I love the subtle indentation on the rear of the Nexus 6x that somehow acts as a fingerprint reader. I love the sharp-edged and plain old geometry of the harsh but beautiful rectangular slabs that make up the Sony Experia line of devices. I love the innovation and style in the HTC line of phones, especially the HTC one, with it’s front facing speakers, all metal unibody and it’s pioneering looks. And it doesn’t end with phones – I love tablets. First and foremost, unobstructed by physical buttons of any kind, I love the eye bleeding sharpness of the 2048×1536 resolution IPS LED screen on my Nexus 9, I love the smooth glass surface that covers the entirely black surface from edge to edge, the nearly square corners, the metal rim, the flat “lunar white” back and the way the camera is tucked into the corner. I also love the tablets I don’t have – the Galaxy Tab S, with it’s paper-thinness and Super AMOLED screen, and even the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book – top of the line, full featured tablet/convertible full fledged Windows computing environments with super high resolution, every bit of computer as a desktop, and a sleek design that’s drool-worthy, and I love the absolutely stunning design and 2560 x1600 OLED infinity display screen of the Dell Venue 8 7000. Does any of this have anything to do with my main point? Tangentially at best. The fact is, I have a family and I’m not allowed to act on a fraction of my impulses, and I don’t necessarily have time to officially review them all. I haven’t owned all of the devices I’ve mentioned, but because of what I do, I have been enable to use them all, and to love and appreciate every inch of every device. So, I do have a problem, but the problem is under control. My reason for mentioning this is that we all know that you don’t “have to” upgrade your phone, literally. At least not every year or two. In fact, you don’t “have to” have a mobile phone made in the last 5 years to have a usable phone. But I “had to” upgrade in the way that most people “have to” upgrade their mobile device. I can come up with a dozen business reasons why a newer phone pays for itself in my case, why it’s return on investment will be a few months, so that it would be impossible to justify not getting it, but regardless of what I say for the business case, the real reasons are those things I mentioned above – I’m a device addict, and while I can’t act on all my impulses, I can (and will) act on some. It’s one of life’s pleasures that is mine. I don’t know if that makes me a freak – I don’t think so, but maybe actually expressing it does. I’m not sure I care. The point here is that I needed a new phone and I had to upgrade, so I did.

My next phone had to be something different.

To be continued…
Sorry! Got called away for a project, but check back in a few days for the completed article!