back to article Meet the Frenchman masterminding a Google-free Android

Open source had a moral purpose when it was fighting "The Borg", Microsoft, in the 1990s, but then it fell from view. You could say it has found its mojo again, only this time it is about loosening the grip of companies built on ever more intrusive personal data processing: Google and Facebook. One of the biggest but most …

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  1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Good luck, he will most certainly need it.

    And I would like to have such a phone, free of all things Google.

    1. macjules Silver badge

      Me too.

      (Looking forward to one day seeing EELO iPhone as well)

      1. no_handle_yet

        Now that is definitely Mr. Blue sky thinking. I'll turn to stone if it ever happens.

        1. Jonathon Desmond

          @no_handle_yet

          Seriously, you gathered a dozen downvotes for working in those references? My sympathies, sad days indeed.

      2. DougS Silver badge

        @macjules

        Looking forward to one day seeing EELO iPhone as well

        Did you really mean to type that? What would be the point of an iPhone running completely different software? OK the hardware is better than Android alternatives in some ways (chiefly CPU performance, and the odd feature that Apple does first like 3D face scanning) but comes up short in others so I don't know why it would be worth doing this - and I say that as an iPhone owner for nine years now.

        Not that it matters, there is no open source driver for Apple's proprietary GPU (among other things) nor any documentation from which someone could write it - and it would be a moving target every year! That's just one of a half dozen intractable issues I see blocking this idea.

        1. TheVogon Silver badge

          Re: @macjules

          "and the odd feature that Apple does first like 3D face scanning"

          Windows phones did that better a few years before Apple did.

    2. jmch Silver badge

      "free of all things Google..."

      The thing is that simply replacing the core Android code isn't enough. You have to provide a privacy-respecting open-source replacement for Google search, email, secure messaging, maps etc etc. Many of these (eg DuckDuckGo, Signal...) already exist, but are either not so well known, or else not up to the standard of the Google app (Maps is one that comes to mind where Google is far ahead of anyone else)

      So, excellent initiative but there are 472 metric fucktonnes of work to be done

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Here Maps works better than Google Maps for me and pops up up GDPR questions.

        1. FlossyThePig

          Here WeGo

          @Dan 55

          ...and pops up up GDPR questions...

          As Here is majority-owned by a consortium of German automotive companies they should be well aware of all things GDPR.

          P.S. "Here Maps" has been rebranded as "Here WeGo".

        2. jaffa99

          For navigation with real-time fraffic, does it really?

          1. Dan 55 Silver badge

            Yes, yes it does.

            1. Charles 9 Silver badge

              When it comes to OpenStreetMap, YMMV. It's essentially a Wikimap. Depending on user input, results can be hit or miss.

        3. handleoclast Silver badge

          Here Maps

          I just took a quick look around my area.

          The roads are OK. The rest of the detail is minimal, and about half of what little is there is wrong. There are very few POIs (two out of seven pubs, no banks, no pharmacies, no doctor's surgeries, no library, no hotels, no guest houses, and almost no shops). Of the few POIs that are there, one is for a pub that shut 3 years ago and is a hundred yards out of place from where it was.

          Compared to OpenStreetMap of the same area a year ago, Here Maps is crap. Compared to OpenStreetMap of the same area as it is today (after about 8 months of mapping by me) it's so fucking crap as to be ludicrous.

          YMMV.

          1. GIRZiM
            Coat

            Re: Here Maps

            There sites of historical interest.

            (with apologies to Marty Feldman)

      2. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        I don't think keeping up the standard is so hard. I'm finding Gmail less and less reliable : it gets stuck, crashes, is harder to use.

        The bar is falling, not rising.

      3. Sherminator

        472 what?

        Hahaha. 472 Metric Fuck tonnes.... I can't wait to use this in some project meeting, but would love to be able to drop it into a document and get away with it!!

        Well played sir!

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I think there’s a project called OpenMaps or something similar which is growing in maturity, could be ported to iOS and Android.

        1. handleoclast Silver badge

          Open Maps

          @AC

          Were you thinking of OpenStreetMap?

          It's already usable in a browser (you can even switch on its GPS location facility). There are several apps which purport to make it even easier to use, although most of them are commercial offerings which mess with the rendering in order to make themselves distinctive, but may give you downloadable maps for offline use (if you pay). Some offer other half-working, half-baked features too.

          Just point your browser at http://osm.org. First time you use it you get a lot of gumph, but that goes away on subsequent uses (unless you delete the cookies). Search for a location and away you go. Quality of details varies from place to place, depending on whether or not somebody has bothered to add things to the map.

      5. jaffa99

        Perhaps they could sell ads to pay for it all, maybe track the users so the ads they see are somewhat relevant rather than random. Then the users get good quality services for little or no cost.

        I wonder if anyone has thought of that.

        1. Updraft102 Silver badge

          Cute.

          I would much rather have random ads than ones that some algorithm thinks is relevant. They never actually manage to be anything I would want... I can't remember ever seeing a "relevant" ad that wasn't completely irrelevant. Stories abound about people being bombarded with ads for toilet seats for a week after buying a toilet seat on Amazon, as if the most common purchaser of toilet seats is a toilet seat collector, not someone who actually wants to replace the one that broke and get on with life.

          I once saw an ad for Airbus when I had my adblocker off on Youtube (bad idea... how can people stand it?) I watch aircraft videos, so I got an ad for aircraft. Because all people who watch plane videos own airlines, I guess. Let me tell you, if I buy an Airbus, it's gonna be about ten inches long and be made completely of plastic. But it's a relevant ad, I guess, because it matched airplane viewer with airplane seller, right?

          As it stands, there's no way in the bad place that I would ever own a smartphone. If this came to pass, I might at least consider it, but probably it would still be a no. Can't stand the things, or what they've done to the culture.

          1. TheVogon Silver badge

            "I would much rather have random ads than ones that some algorithm thinks is relevant. They never actually manage to be anything I would want... "

            "when I had my adblocker off"

            So maybe you are getting random ads?

            "Because all people who watch plane videos own airlines"

            If you had an interest in aircraft they might also have been trying to make you want to fly in one? And if you normally use an ad blocker they might only have been able to match that interest.

      6. Epobirs

        Maps is a pretty important one. I've pretty much given up on the navigation software that came built-in on my Toyota. It's so rare that it produces a useful result that it gets ignored in favor of the phone on my lap on most occasions. The difference in a system driven by a massive remote infrastructure vs. one that must be completely contained within the car (though it does get traffic data) puts the car's version at a crushing disadvantage. Fifteen years ago, having a navigation system that ran off a laptop and a few GB of data was amazing but now I've come to expect so much more. At a price that may be greater but far less apparent than a simple monetary fee.

      7. Palebushman
        Coat

        Here's a possible 'Fix' for the team.

        "So, excellent initiative but there are 472 metric fucktonnes of work to be done"

        Just on my way out to search for a supply of 472 doses of 'Metric Viagra' then.

      8. find users who cut cat tail

        > Maps is one that comes to mind where Google is far ahead of anyone else

        Sorry, but if you think this, you have never seen a good map -- or at least one that's not utter shit. I often see people first trying to find something using Google's Maps, which is of course prominent on the phone, realising after while that it is useless and switching to a proper map app.

      9. frankieh

        Well sure the OSS versions are not as good. They don't earn money so they don't get the best paid minds working on them.. OSS is at it's best when it's supported by real businesses like Redhat, IBM etc etc.. nobody is making money with duckduckgo and so consequently it's not going to be to the same standard. Same with maps.. if it wasn't a value add for Android, who else would pay for thousands of cars to drive around mapping our roads?

        I'm more worried about things like insurance companies getting court ordered access to our health data from our own devices (via google or apple) and using that data against us. (for example to deny a payout)

    3. IanRobertson

      https://lineage.microg.org/ - works for me - breaks some google play addicted apps which

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Also GNOME-free, please God.

    5. TheVogon Silver badge

      "But someone has to build the damn thing – and it's going to be a mammoth task."

      And Google will likely be told by the EU to a) do exactly that, and / or b) let anyone else who wants to do that have access to GMS APIs too.

      It will undoubtedly mean that we get vast amounts of other vendor crapware on new phones instead of The Borg's, but at least we will probably have a choice of alternatives to install.

    6. ForthIsNotDead Silver badge

      We had such a phone, free from Google: the Ubuntu phone. And everyone ignored it.

      1. TheVogon Silver badge

        "free from Google: the Ubuntu phone. And everyone ignored it."

        Because it couldn't run Android apps?

      2. Col_Panek

        And Firefox OS.

    7. SuccessCase

      There are a lot of very uninformed comments on here regarding Apple. There is little to no equivalence between Apple and Google when it comes to privacy. Apple have very clearly set out their stall and ensure privacy as far as it is possible to do so. So iMessage, FaceTime etc end-to-end encrypted on the end devices. Apple have no idea of the content. All photo tagging, face recognition, composition of "my year in review" photo montages etc. done again, on the user's device (using amongst other things the 3D graphics processors comparatively massive parallel compute power - for a phone at least). Apple themselves have no records of messages or calls that is unencrypted or accessible by them. Other machine learning (like is used for tagging emails containing content that might be relevant to other apps like Calendar or Contacts) is all implemented using differential privacy. Safari browser blocking the tracking capability of social media "like" buttons, blocking ad tracking and "genericising" the device hardware signature so hardware fingerprinting technologies as currently used by advertising firms cannot be used. iCloud documents for Pages, Numbers, Keynote, all end to end encrypted and only unlocked on the device. Same, importantly, for iCloud backups. Preferences and listening habits for music and recommendations again are all implemented using differential privacy. If you don't know what that is, look it up and you will see it is inimitable to Google's business model.

      Apple Pay: Apple have assiduously avoided deals with retailers and no personal details are available to the retailer. From the retailers perspective it provides no more data about the customer than does cash. Our banks who are supposed to protecting our financial data aren't doing this and are falling over themselves attempting to downgrade Apple pay and promote their own payments solutions which do furnish such data. They are even now disabling USB after 1 minute standby to block hardware passcode bypass technologies used by the government and law enforcement agencies. GDPR: they have jumped all in, and seized the opportunity it presents to underline the difference between their approach and Google's. Their GDPR web pages and the forensic detail they provide their customers about all personal data they do have stored, goes way beyond what their competitors are offering.

      Of course it's not all roses. The problem with doing so much on device is that the solutions are likely to continue, comparatively, to lag Google's solutions in terms of the efficacy of the machine learning results. Also, as the comments on here seem to so amply demonstrate, most people don't actually care that much as to actually check and compare what these company's actual policies are, so at the end of the day, unfortunately I don't think it's going to help Apple that they are taking such a strong line on privacy. People will continue to think "Siri is shit," and comparatively it will always be weaker, and too few will be thinking "but whew, at least my personal data is safe"

    8. panoptiq

      BB10 OS from BlackBerry gave us the freedom we sought, but fell due to App shortages. Damn shame too because it was the most elegant, refined and practical mobile OS out there imho.

  2. 89724102372714581892524I9755670349743096734346773478647852349863592355648544996313855148583659264921

    Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

    1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Well, more like "sometime in several years we will celebrate our Independence Day!"

  3. Mage Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Sounds good

    He seems aware of the challenges.

    I hope there is an EU ruling that will help and that India and other countries willing to oppose big USA corporates support it. Likely HTC and Lenovo won't, but TCL might?

    1. ratfox Silver badge

      Re: Sounds good

      It might well be that a EU ruling would force Google to make a viable alternative available.

      On the online shopping case, the EU did not dictate a solution; they just gave a huge fine, and warned that the huge fines would keep coming unless Google found a solution to the issue they had created...

      The way I see it, the Android case is much simpler. People can actually articulate what would be necessary to have a Google-free Android. They just need to tell Google to do it.

    2. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: Sounds good

      "He seems aware of the challenges."

      Funnily I got the exact opposite impression. By his own admission he lacks any in-depth insight into either Android in particular or dirty specifics of mobile tech in general, being more of an "IT guy with a list of itches he wants scratched" long-distance-working with a ("the") programmer and an ("the") artist each on different continents. I could be wrong but it comes off awfully much like a naive "you can do ANYTHING if only you put your mind to it" proposition when the actual task at hand is more like "proceed taking flight by jumping off this here cliff, without using any additional implements for assistance, at your earliest convenience, we're waiting...". Forking some existing code and hammering out yet another absolute bare-bones launcher doesn't even begin to address the enormity of what would be required here (first of which would be a sizeable community of active contributors) IMHO...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

    So it is basically another custom rom, which is always welcomed. Hopefully, they'll show us what device(s) they are supporting soon.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

      Let's hope they do security right. Most ROMS on XDA and even lineage OS is not that good on security. I am yet to see a bootloader and ROMS that does DM-Verity (signed / secure boot). Let's not even talk about root by default and microg signature spoofing (all bad for security).

      Only exception is Copperhead OS but they have payed only downloads for new devices.

      1. Waseem Alkurdi

        Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

        Most ROMS on XDA and even lineage OS is not that good on security.

        Expecting security with an unlocked bootloader which is what you use on most devices to install a custom ROM?

        And dm-verify, er, verifies hashes of block partitions against a vendor's cryptographic key. That means that you can't find anything not from a vendor that passes dm-verify.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

          Well you can lock the bootloader after you load the custom ROM!

          Er, you can pass dm-verity. See what Copperhead OS does on Nexus series (and I assume Pixels as well)

          On a Nexus it shows the yellow alternate bootloader warning, but you can see the signature to see if ROM with a different signer is installed (if you care to remember the hash). If you modify the parition you get a red warning.

        2. Shart Tank

          Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

          Er its dm-veriTy. not dm-veriFy If XDA fan boys / custom ROM users can't even get the name right, and understand you can re-lock a boot loader what hope we have of getting properly secured ROM with long term support.

          I guess its back to sh*tty ROMs, with much of AOSP security turned off. Oh look we got this fancy Skin.

          Remember folks you can't have privacy without security.

      2. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

        dm-verity requires submitting to Google to get an official key. That's why LineageOS is never signed, now will this without something significant.

      3. Colin Critch

        Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

        Copperhead OS is dead the main dev deleted the update keys. No more updates!

    2. vagabondo

      Re: At its foundation, it will be forked from LineageOS

      My ex-Android phone runs Lineage and uses F-droid as its main repository, with occasional forays to Amazon's app store for IPlayer Radio, etc. DuckDuckGo, Firefox, Chromium, OpenStreetMap, CSipSimple, FreeOIP and an SSH provide the most used functionality. I do not have a Google account.

      The problem for general acceptance is the pressure from government, banks and large corporations to use their closed-source (and hence of dubious trustworthiness) software that is only available via Google or Apple. I do not understand why these organisations cannot make thir stuff available from their own sites, or sign it themselves and make it available from other repositories. Perhaps they are concerned to maintain their deniability shields when their clients money or data goes walkabout. They do this by promoting inherently insecure protocols and then placing the onus for security on the end-user.

      Nothing will change until most legislators are more familiar with STEM subjects than politics and self-promotion.

  5. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    I'm uncertain...

    Basically, this is a very good thing. BUT...I quite like gmail. And the calendar is quite handy. And it's good to use both on phone and desktop. I appreciate there are alternatives, I just can't be faffed to install them and switch. For search I sometimes use Bing, sometimes Google. But I usually get better results in Google!

    And, evil though Google tends to be, lock-in there is as nothing compared to Amazon. I recently needed wanted a new tablet, and succumbed to getting an Amazon Fire HD 10 (decent spec and price). But Jesus wept, talk about lockin! I've managed to kill Alexa (probably) but it looks like a bit of a faff to even get Google Play installed to get some of my more core apps installed (the VPN I pay for, Firefox Focus). I'm still googling to work out if I can completely replace the OS with vanilla Android.

    Let the down-votes commence!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm uncertain...

      "I appreciate there are alternatives, I just can't be faffed to install them and switch"

      You do make sense: Google software is not bad, by any means, and it's understandable many people want to use it. What indeed matter is the lock in. And there is something there: switching is difficult. I mean, media is talking about AI and autonomous cars and rockets to Mars - and at the same time, it's not possible to switch applications easily, let alone phones. It can only be made somewhat easier if you agree to let various companies spy on you by using some cloudy storage, but without it? Forget it.

      Moving data from one app to another, or one phone to another seems to be deliberately a hurdle, and I hope that will change.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Let the down-votes commence!

      Unless you buried something nasty in there, why a downvote ?

      Not liking Googles Android strategy doesn't preclude them from making some good shit.

    3. deive

      Re: I'm uncertain...

      No downvote as it is quite hard to do, but for a start don't use bing. It's called bing FFS! https://duckduckgo.com/?q=alternative+search+engines&t=canonical&ia=web

      Also, why does a VPN app require Google Play Services? It shouldn't require your location or push messages or a cloud database or any of the other things that the services offer - perhaps you should look into changing that too. This another way Google are locking Android down - all the apps that use their services.

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