Gaël Duval, creator of the popular early Linux distribution, Mandrake Linux, wanted a smartphone, which was open source, would run a wide variety of popular software, and protect your privacy. His answer was the Android-based /e/ operating system and smartphones. While it’s still in beta, both its code and refurbished Samsung phones running it are now available.
There have been many attempts to create an alternative to Google-based Android and Apple’s iOS — Ubuntu One, FirefoxOS, and Windows Mobile all quickly spring to mind — but none of them caught on. More recently, Huawei is working on its own Android alternative: Harmony OS. Duval’s approach hasn’t been to reinvent the mobile operating system wheel, but instead to clean up Android of its Google privacy-invading features and replace them with privacy-respecting one, in which, as Duval said in an interview, “Your data is your data.”
To do this, he’s started with LineageOS. This is an Android-based operating system, which is descended from the failed CyanogenMod Android fork. According to Duval, the /e/ operating system is a Lineage OS fork. It also blends in features from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) 7, 8, and 9 source-code trees.
In the /e/ OS all Google services have been removed and replaced with MicroG services. MicroG replaces Google’s libraries with purely open-source implementations without hooks to Google’s services. This includes libraries and apps which provide Google Play, Maps, Geolocation, and Messaging services for the Android applications when they need them.
What this means is that you can run some Android apps, which normally only work on a fully Google-enabled Android phone on an /e/ phone. These compatible apps are available via the /e/ app store.
But, with its privacy first emphasis, when you look at an app you might want to use, the app store also gives you a full reading not only on the program’s privacy settings but exactly what information it’s sharing. It’s up to you to decide if an app’s utility is worth its privacy compromises. With this information, Duval said, “You can make an informed decision.”
The /e/ platform also comes with its own services. For example, its search program uses not Google but Qwant, a popular, privacy-first European-based search engine. Instead of Google Drive for cloud storage, you get /e/’s own cloud, which is based on the open-source NextCloud.
You can download and install /e/ on 85 different smartphone models. This includes phones from Google, HTC, Motorola, OnePlus, Samsung, and Xiaomi. It is not available from any phone OEM or carrier at this time. Duval said though that he is in talks with Huawei, Samsung, and several global telecoms.
You can also buy an /e/ phone today if you’re in the EU. These are refurbished Samsung S7, S7+, S9, and S9+ smartphones. Their prices range from 249 to 479 Euros. These will soon be available in Australia and New Zealand. Duval is also in talks to bring these unlocked phones to US and Canada. He’s also actively looking for partners in Brazil, China, and Russia.
While available on the market now, Duval emphasized that this is still a beta operating system. That said, these phones do work today. He hopes to have version 1.0 out at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February 2020.
I have seen all too many failed attempts to compete with Android and iOS. But I’m impressed by Duval’s privacy-first approach, which builds on the existing successful Android platform. Instead of trying to replace it, he’s making the best of it. I think with privacy being more of a concern for users and hardware vendors looking for Google-free operating systems, /e/ may be successful where so many others have failed.