Android phones without Google. No Google apps, no Google Play Services, no nimble Google Assistant. No Google oversight and data tracking, no constant ad targeting, no feeling like privacy is a pointless exercise. Some companies, like Huawei, have been forced to figure out how to make this kind of device. Some others have tried in the interest of maintaining your privacy and as a way to combat the tyranny of Big Tech. None of it has ever actually worked.
The team at Murena has been working on Android phones de-Googling for the last few years, starting in 2017 when Gael Duval created an operating system he originally called Eelo. “Like millions of others, I HAVE BEEN GOOGLE PRODUCT,” Duval wrote in 2017. He said he wanted to build something as good as other Android software, removing all the fuss. monitoring. “I needed something that I could even recommend to my parents or children,” he wrote. “Something appealing, with more privacy guarantees. Something that we can build in a reasonable amount of time, something that gets better and better over time. ”
The operating system, now known as /e/OS, has been on some devices for a while now, but now the product is said to be ready to go: Murena is releasing what it calls “/ e/OS V1″, along with the company’s first smartphone, the $369 Murena One.
As a hardware first, it’s impressive: a slick glass panel with a 6.5-inch display, an octa-core MediaTek processor, a fingerprint reader on the side, and three cameras in a small hump. at the back. The photography specs are also impressive, including a 48-megapixel primary sensor on the back and a 25-megapixel pinhole camera on the front for selfies. The camera is the only place where Murena seems to have appeared here, which COO Alexis Noetinger says is necessary. “People are willing to make quite a few trade-offs when moving to a privacy-focused environment,” he says, “but we’ve found that cameras are something people can be very picky about.”
We’ll have to test both of them more before we can draw full conclusions, but in my limited testing, both appear to be good cameras but far from what you might expect. expect on recent Google, Apple or Samsung phones.
To get rid of everything that might have been left on her device, Murena had to create an amazing amount of stuff. Software/e/OS comes with: custom messaging app, so you don’t need Google Messages; Chrome alternative browser; a mapping application that uses OpenStreetMap data instead of Google’s; email client, calendar, file storage system, contacts app, and practically everything else you get in the Google Workspace suite; app for notes and tasks, music and even voice recording. Murena is even planning her own virtual assistant, called Elivia, so you won’t miss out on Google Assistant.
Murena’s built-in cloud also ends up for many of those services, so you can check your email in the email/e/OS client but can also use your /e/email address instead. addresses ending in gmail.com. All your online services reside in Murena Cloud instead of on Google or Microsoft services. To some extent, all you’re really doing here is swapping out one centralized supplier for another, but Murena says all of its products are designed with the same anti-surveillance privacy principles as their smartphones.
It’s an admirable effort, but even Murena can only go so far in giving up on Google. Every company that’s tried this, from Huawei’s Harmony OS to badass projects like Ubuntu Touch and Firefox OS, ends up finding the same thing: without the Android app ecosystem, your phone will die as soon as it appears. So Murena tried to eat cake and eat it: the company changed Google’s Play Store to “App Lounge”, allowing you to install all the Android apps – including, yes, those made by Google – but with no sign of Google branding.
However, to use the App Lounge, you must accept its Terms of Service, which say right at the top that you have two options – sign in with your Google account or browse the Room wait anonymously – but in a way, your app -download relationships are mostly with Google. You just need to download the Play app in a store with a different look. Lounge fetches its information directly from the Play Store (without telling Google who you are, says Murena) and uses Google for all forms of payment.
The App Lounge includes some non-Play Store apps, and you can fiddle with the settings and choose to see only open source apps and progressive web apps, but that severely limits the number of apps available. available to you.
Connecting to Google came pretty directly ahead of Murena’s promises and drove a lot of Murena’s early testers crazy, but I don’t think Murena has any choice but to deal with it this way. “A smartphone without Google supervision” is an appealing idea to many users, but “a smartphone without any apps you want” is a satisfying tool. favorable to everyone. Noetinger said that sure, Murena could have made a Linux phone that fulfills everyone’s privacy dreams, but it won’t run any apps. And no one wants it. “We needed people to find the app,” he said, “otherwise we would connect with a small number of people who would find the project great, but it would end there.” Murena is trying to go a straight line here, but the truth is that line doesn’t exist. You just can’t have the full Android experience without inviting Google into the equation.
Instead, when you sign in to Google or use Google services, Murena tries to minimize the data that Google may collect. It’s based on a project called MicroG which is basically a more private clone of some of the libraries that Google requires to run its apps, so you can use apps that require the Service of Google Play without actually using Google Play Services. learn a lot in Settings to actually sign in to my Google account on Murena One. I can’t imagine many people buying /e/OS devices and then rushing to install Google Maps and Chrome, but it’s still an annoying bug.
Murena’s overall approach to privacy seems to focus less on stopping data collection altogether and more on security by obfuscation. If you enable Enhanced Privacy in /e/OS, it will use the VPN to mask your location – either by choosing a “reasonably random location” somewhere in the world, or allowing you choose where you want – and even hide your IP address from the websites you visit. It also tries to block trackers in every app you download, and seems to do it quite successfully.
However, Enhanced Privacy comes with its own trade-offs. For one thing, it’s hard to use weather or map apps when your phone thinks you’re in Singapore, like I did when I first started it up from my home in Virginia. Many apps are also geo-fenced in one way or another, so I was forced to disable all protection for apps like Netflix and YouTube TV. (Oh yeah, I downloaded YouTube and YouTube TV because Murena couldn’t replace those, so Google still put me in there.) Murena is trying really hard to make security software set-it-and- forget-it, but it ended up asking harder than I wanted.
Of course, all /e/OS is still based on Android. The device I’m using is running a forked version of Android 10 based on Lineage OS, a sub-version of Android based on the old CyanogenMod project. (It’s a fork, though! And the brand new LineageOS goes up to Android 12, so it’s a shame to see /e/OS lag behind.) And for all of Murena’s work, it’s still the same… Android. The organization has said that it plans to review how notifications work, and make other changes to how Android works, but for now, it’s just a simple iPhone-style launcher. on another familiar version of Android.
The Murena One is an ambitious device and /e/OS is an even more ambitious operating system. But so far, they’ve mostly shown me how deeply ingrained Google is in our digital lives and how much control the company has over its supposedly open-source operating system. It seems like the only way to get Android out of Google is to make things about Android a little worse. And the only way to finally make it better is to rebuild it from scratch. It would be difficult for anyone to accomplish, no matter how fervently they believe in that mission.