Android phone without google. No Google Apps, no Google Play Services, and no peppy Google Assistant. No Google monitoring and data snooping, no persistent ad targeting, and no feeling that privacy is a pointless exercise. Some companies, like Huawei, have had to figure out how to build this type of device. Others have tried for your privacy and as a way to fight the tyranny of big tech companies. None of them ever worked.
The Murena team has been de-Googling Android phones for the past few years, starting in 2017 when Gael Duval created an operating system originally called Eelo. “Like millions of others, I became a Google product,” Duval Books in 2017. He said he wanted to build something as good as other Android software, except for monitoring. “I need something that I can even recommend to my parents or my children,” he wrote. “Something attractive with guarantees of more privacy. Something we can build in a reasonable amount of time, something that will improve over time.”
The operating system, now called /e/OS, has been available on a handful of devices for a while, but now the product is presumably ready for primetime action: Murena releases what it calls “/e/OS V1”, along with With the company’s first-ever smartphone, the Murena One $369.
As a first hardware effort, it was reasonably impressive: a smooth glass panel with a 6.5-inch screen, an eight-core MediaTek processor, a fingerprint reader on the side, and three cameras in a small hump on the back. The photographic specs are also impressive, including a 48MP main sensor on the back and a 25MP camera on the front for taking selfies. The camera was the only place Morena seemed to have bragged about it here, which Alexis Nottinger, COO, says was essential. “People are willing to make a lot of tradeoffs when they move to a more privacy-oriented environment, but we’ve seen that the camera is the most likely thing that people can be selective about,” he said.
We’ll have to test them more before we can make a full verdict, but in my limited testing, both seem to be decent cameras but far from what you’d expect in a newer Google, Apple, or Samsung phone.
In order to rid her devices of every potential leftover from Google, Murena had to build an incredible amount of stuff. The /e/OS software comes with: a dedicated messaging app, so you don’t need Google Messages; A browser to replace Chrome; A map application that uses OpenStreetMap data instead of Google data; An email client, calendar, file storage system, contacts app, and practically everything else you get in the Google Workspace suite; Apps for notes, tasks, music and even audio recordings. Even Morena is planning Her own virtual assistantin the name of Elivia, so you won’t miss out on the Google Assistant.
Murena has built cloud backends for many of these services as well, so you can check your email in the /e/OS email app but also use your own email/e-mail address instead of an address ending in gmail.com. All your online services live in Murena Cloud rather than Google or Microsoft services. To some extent, all it does here is switch one central provider with another, but Murena says all of its products are designed with the same anti-surveillance privacy principles as its smartphones.
It’s an impressive effort, but even Morena can only go so far as to get rid of Google. Every company that’s tried this before, from Huawei’s Harmony OS to ominous 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 get her cake and eat it too: The company replaced the Google Play Store with “App Lounge,” which lets you install all the Android apps — including, yes, those made by Google — but they don’t have any sign of Google branding.
In order to use App Lounge, though, you must accept their terms of service, which states at the top that you have two options — sign in with your Google account or browse Lounge anonymously — but either way, your app – Download Relationship Mostly with Google. You just download Play Apps in 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 includes some apps other than the Play Store apps, and you can look in the settings and choose to view only open source and progressive web apps, but this seriously limits the number of apps available to you.
Contacting Google is directly contrary to Murena’s promises Lots of Morena’s early testers are crazyBut I don’t think Morena has any other choice but to treat her that way. A “smartphone without Google monitoring” is a compelling idea for many users, but a “smartphone without any of the apps you want” is a bargain for almost everyone. Sure, Murena says, Murena could have built a Linux phone that fulfilled everyone’s privacy dreams, but it wouldn’t run any apps. And nobody wants that. “We need people to find the apps,” he says, “otherwise we’ll contact a small number of people, who will find the project cool, but it will end there.” Morena is trying to walk a fine line here, but the truth is that that line doesn’t exist. You can’t get the full Android experience without inviting Google into the equation.
Instead, when you sign in to Google or use its services, Murena tries to mitigate the data that Google can collect. It is based on a project called Micro G This 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 Google Play Services without actually using Google Play Services, and it mostly works, although it does require a lot of searching in settings to actually sign in to My Google Account on Murena One. I can’t imagine many people buy /e/OS devices and then rush to install Google Maps and Chrome, but it’s still a frustrating bug.
Murena’s holistic approach to privacy appears to focus less on stopping data collection altogether and more on security through obscurity. If you turn on Advanced Privacy in /e/OS, it uses a VPN to hide your location – either by choosing a “reasonable random location” somewhere in the world or letting you choose where you want to be – and even masking your IP address of the sites you visit. It also tries to block trackers in every app you download and seems to do so with great success.
Advanced privacy comes with its own trade-offs, though. For one thing, it’s hard to use the weather or map apps when your phone thinks you’re in Singapore, as they did to me when I first turned it on from my home in Virginia. A lot of apps are also geo-tagged in one way or another, so I ended up turning off all protections for apps like Netflix and YouTube TV. (Oh yeah, I downloaded YouTube and YouTube TV because Murena can’t replace them, so Google got me there anyway.) More in vain than I wanted.
All /e/OS are 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 inspired by the old CyanogenMod project. (It’s a fork fork! And LineageOS is coming to Android 12, though, so it’s problematic to see /e/OS late.) And for all of Murena’s work, it still looks like…Android. The organization said it plans to Rethink the way notifications workFor example, and making other changes to how Android works, but for now, it’s just a simple iPhone-style launcher on top of a familiar version of Android.
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 rooted Google is in our digital lives and how much control the company has over the supposedly open-source operating system. It seems like the only way to get free Android from Google is to make everything about Android a little worse. And the only way to eventually improve it is to rebuild it from the ground up. It would be hard for anyone to quit, no matter how much they believed in the mission.