Thursday, September 21, 2023

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

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Shreya Christina
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An Android phone without Google. No Google apps, no Google Play services, no happy Google Assistant. No Google surveillance and data snooping, no incessant ad targeting, no sense that privacy is a pointless exercise. Some companies, such as Huawei, have been forced to figure out how to build these kinds of devices. A few others have tried it for the sake of preserving your privacy and as a way to fight back against the tyranny of Big Tech. None of them ever really worked.

Murena’s team has spent the past few years de-Googling Android phones, starting in 2017 when Gael Duval created an operating system he originally called Eelo. “Like millions of others, I HAVE BECOME A PRODUCT OF GOOGLE”, Duval wrote in 2017† He said he wanted to build something that is as good as any other Android software, minus all the oversight. “I need something that 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 brings what it calls “/e/OS V1” along with the first-ever smartphone. from the company, the $369 Murena One.

As an initial hardware effort, it’s pretty impressive: a slick plate with a 6.5-inch screen, an 8-core MediaTek processor, a fingerprint reader on the side, and three cameras in a small bump on the back. The photography specs are also impressive, including a 48-megapixel main sensor on the back and a 25-megapixel pinhole camera on the front for selfies. The camera was the only place Murena appears to have spent here, which COO Alexis Noetinger said was out of necessity. “People are willing to make quite a few compromises when they move to an environment that’s more focused on privacy,” he said, “but we’ve seen that the camera is most likely what people can be very picky about.”

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

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

To rid his device of every possible leftover from Google, Murena had to build an incredible amount of things. The /e/OS software comes with: a custom 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 even plans his own virtual assistantcalled Elivia, so you won’t miss Google Assistant.

Murena has also built cloud backends for many of those services, so you can check your email in the /e/OS email app, but also use your /e/ email address instead of an address that ends at All your online services live in Murena Cloud instead of on Google or Microsoft services. To a certain extent, all you’re really doing here is trading one centralized provider for another, but Murena says all of 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 dumping 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 eat and eat his pie: the company swapped Google’s Play Store for the “App Lounge”, which lets you do all the important things. Android apps — including, yes, those made by Google — but have no sign of Google branding.

To use the App Lounge, however, you must accept the Terms of Service, which at the very top says you have two options – sign in with your Google account or browse the Lounge anonymously – but either way, your app download relationship is mostly with Google . You just download Play apps from a store that looks different. The Lounge gets its information straight 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 non-Play Store apps and you can dive into the settings and choose to see only open source apps and progressive web apps, but that limits the number of apps available quite severely.

Connecting to Google quite directly goes against the promises of Murena and has made many Murena’s early testers crazy, but I don’t think Murena had any choice but to go about it this way. “An unattended smartphone from Google” is an appealing idea to many users, but “a smartphone without the apps they want” is a deal breaker for almost everyone. Noetinger says Murena could certainly 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 with a small number of people, who will love the project, but that’s where it ends.” Murena is trying to walk a thin 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 sign in to Google or use its services, Murena attempts to limit the data Google may collect. It relies on a project called MicroG that’s essentially a more private clone of some of the libraries Google needs to run its apps, so you can use apps that require Google Play Services without actually using Google Play Services. It usually works, although it took a lot of searching in Settings to actually log into my Google account on the 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 a frustrating bug.

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

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

However, advanced privacy has its own tradeoffs. For starters, it’s hard to use weather or maps apps when your phone thinks you’re in Singapore, like mine did when I first launched it from my home in Virginia. A lot of apps are also geofenced in some way, so I ended up having to disable all protection for apps like Netflix and YouTube TV. (Oh yeah, and I downloaded YouTube and YouTube TV because Murena can’t replace them, so Google got me there anyway.) Murena does her best to create privacy software that you can set and forget, but in the end had more fiddling than me Savage.

All of /e/OS is, of course, still based on Android. The device I’m using runs on a forked version of Android 10 based on Lineage OS, an Android spin-off 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 shame to see /e/OS lag behind.) And for all Murena’s work, it still looks like.. Android. The organization has said it plans to rethink the way notifications workand 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 how ingrained Google is into our digital lives and how much more control the company has over its supposedly open-source operating system. The only way to get Android free from Google, it seems, is to make everything about Android a little bit worse. And the only way to eventually make it better is to rebuild it from the ground up. That will be difficult for anyone to pull off, no matter how fervently they believe in the mission.

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