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The Murena One shows exactly how hard it is to de-Google your smartphone

The Murena One shows exactly how hard it is to de-Google your smartphone

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/e/OS does a lot, but it can’t fix the ecosystem

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An Android phone without Google. No Google apps, no Google Play Services, no peppy Google Assistant. No Google surveillance and data snooping, no incessant ad targeting, no feeling like privacy is a pointless exercise. Some companies, like Huawei, have been forced to figure out how to build this kind of device. A few others have tried for the sake of maintaining your privacy and as a way to fight back against the tyranny of Big Tech. None of it has ever really worked.

The team at Murena has been working on de-Googling Android phones for the last few years, starting back in 2017 when Gael Duval created an operating system he originally called Eelo. “Like millions others, I’VE BECOME A PRODUCT OF GOOGLE,” Duval wrote in 2017. He said he wanted to build something just as good as other Android software, minus all the surveillance. “I need something I could even recommend to my parents or my children,” he wrote. “Something appealing, with guarantees for more privacy. Something that we could build in a reasonable amount of time, something that will get better and better over time.” 

The operating system, now called /e/OS, has been available on a few devices for a while, but now the product is supposedly ready for prime time: Murena is releasing what it calls “/e/OS V1,” along with the company’s first-ever smartphone, the $369 Murena One. 

As a first hardware effort, it’s reasonably impressive: a slick slab of glass with a 6.5-inch display, an eight-core MediaTek processor, a fingerprint reader on the side, and three cameras in a small hump on the back. The photography specs are impressive, too, including a 48-megapixel main sensor on the back and a 25-megapixel pinhole camera on the front for selfies. The camera was the one place Murena seems to have splurged here, which COO Alexis Noetinger says was by necessity. “People are ready to make quite a lot of tradeoffs when they move to an environment that is more oriented toward privacy,” he said, “but we’ve seen that the camera is the most likely thing people can be very picky about.”

We’ll have to test them both more before we can deliver a full verdict, but in my limited testing, they both seem to be decent cameras but a far cry from what’d you’d expect on a recent Google, Apple or Samsung phone.

The Murena One is a fairly simple Android phone, at least in a hardware sense.
The Murena One is a fairly simple Android phone, at least in a hardware sense.
Image: Murena

In order to rid its device of every possible remnant of Google, Murena had to build an incredible amount of stuff. The /e/OS software comes with: a custom-made messaging app, so you don’t need Google Messages; a browser to replace Chrome; a maps app that uses OpenStreetMap data instead of Google’s; an email client, a calendar, a file-storage system, a contacts app, and practically everything else you’d get in the Google Workspace suite; apps for notes and tasks and music and even voice recordings. Murena is even planning its own virtual assistant, named Elivia, so you won’t miss Google Assistant. 

In order to rid its device of every possible remnant of Google, Murena had to build an incredible amount of stuff

Murena built cloud back ends for many of those services, too, so you can check your email in the /e/OS email app but also use your /e/ email address instead of one ending in gmail.com. All your online services live in Murena Cloud instead of on Google or Microsoft services. To some extent, all you’re really doing here is swapping one centralized provider for another, but Murena says all its products are designed with the same anti-surveillance privacy principles as its smartphones.

It’s an admirable effort, but even Murena can only go so far in ditching Google. Every company that has ever tried this, from Huawei’s Harmony OS to ill-fated projects like Ubuntu Touch and Firefox OS, eventually discovered the same thing: without the Android app ecosystem, your phone is dead on arrival. So Murena tried to have its cake and eat it too: the company swapped Google’s Play Store for the “App Lounge,” which lets you install all major Android apps — including, yes, those made by Google — but has no sign of Google branding. 

In order to use the App Lounge, though, you have to accept its Terms of Service, which says right up at the top that you have two options — log in with your Google account or browse the Lounge anonymously — but either way, your app-downloading relationship is mostly with Google. You’re just downloading Play apps in a different-looking store. The Lounge fetches its information directly from the Play Store (without telling Google who you are, Murena says) and uses Google for all forms of payment. 

The App Lounge isn’t the Play Store, but... it’s basically the Play Store

The App Lounge does include some non-Play Store apps, and you can dig into settings and choose to only see open-source apps and progressive web apps, but that pretty seriously limits the number of apps available to you.

Connecting to Google flies pretty directly in the face of Murena’s promises and has made a lot of Murena’s early testers mad, but I don’t think Murena had another choice but to handle it this way. “A smartphone without Google’s surveillance” is a compelling idea to many users, but “a smartphone without any of the apps you want” is a dealbreaker for just about everybody. Noetinger says that sure, Murena could have built a Linux phone that fulfilled everyone’s privacy dreams, but it wouldn’t have run any apps. And nobody would have wanted it. “We need people to find apps,” he says, “otherwise we’re going to connect to a small amount of people, who will find the project great, but it will end there.” Murena is trying to walk a fine line here, but the truth is that line just doesn’t exist. You just can’t have the full Android experience without inviting Google into the equation.

Instead, when you log into Google or use its services, Murena tries to mitigate the data Google can collect. It leans on a project called MicroG that’s essentially a more private clone of some of the libraries that Google requires to run its apps, so you can use apps that require Google Play Services without actually using Google Play Services.It mostly works, though it took a lot of digging around in Settings to actually log in to my Google account on the Murena One. I can’t imagine many people are buying /e/OS devices and then rushing to install Google Maps and Chrome, but it’s still a frustrating bug.

Murena replaced most Google services, including maps, with its own.
Murena replaced most Google services, including maps, with its own.
Image: Murena

Murena’s overall approach to privacy seems to focus less on stopping data collection altogether and more on security by obscurity. If you turn on Advanced Privacy in /e/OS, it uses a VPN to mask your location — either by picking a “random plausible location” somewhere in the world or letting you choose where you want to be — and even hides your IP address from the sites you visit. It also tries to block trackers in every app you download and seems to do so pretty successfully.

Advanced Privacy comes with its own tradeoffs, though. For one thing, it’s tough to use weather or maps apps when your phone thinks you’re in Singapore, as mine did when I first booted it up from my house in Virginia. Lots of apps are also geofenced in one way or another, so I wound up having to turn off all the protection for apps like Netflix and YouTube TV. (Oh yeah, and I downloaded YouTube and YouTube TV because Murena can’t replace those, so Google got me there anyway.) Murena is trying hard to create set-it-and-forget-it privacy software, but it ended up requiring more fiddling than I wanted.

All of /e/OS is still based on Android, of course. The device I’m using is running a forked version of Android 10 based on Lineage OS, an Android spinoff based on the old CyanogenMod project. (It’s a fork of a fork! And LineageOS is all the way up to Android 12, though, so it’s a bummer to see /e/OS lag behind.) And for all of Murena’s work, it still looks like… Android. The organization has said that it plans to rethink the way notifications work, for instance, and make other changes to how Android works, but right now, it’s just a simple iPhone-style launcher on top of an otherwise 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 just how ingrained Google is in our digital lives and how much more control the company has taken over its supposedly open-source operating system. The only way to get Android free of Google, it seems, is to make everything about Android a little worse. And the only way to eventually make it better is to rebuild it from the ground up. That’s going to be tough for anyone to pull off, no matter how fervently they believe in the mission.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 24 Striking out

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