Using /e/-OS on Android without Google

Over the last years, I took some much needed steps towards more data privacy. I started out by moving e-mail and calendar away from Google towards Fastmail, which I’m still very happy with.

Other steps included deleting most of my unhealthy social media presence (Twitter) and switching from Whatsapp to Signal and Telegram. I also stopped using Google Maps in favor of Here We Go and Magic Earth. The point was to remove Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple as much as possible from my life.

This process took me quite a long time, which is mostly because of the strong network effects created by the big platforms - it took me 1,5 years to finally get rid of Whatsapp, for example.

I made a lot of progress, gradually moving away from cloud-based tools in general. However, one last and big problem remained - my Android phone.

At first, I considered just getting rid of my smartphone and moving back to a non-smart one. However, while I do think that spending less time on and being less dependent on my phone is a important, there are useful applications for this technology in my life (public transport, secure messaging, basic navigation).

So with that option gone, the next idea was to search for better alternatives. Unfortunately, there are only 2 widely supported mainstream solutions and they are maintained and controlled by Apple and Google. And while Apple has been very loud in terms of PR, talking about how data privacy is a first class citizen for them, their practices surrounding Siri speak a very different language.

At the end of the day, Apple is definitely better than Google in terms of privacy at the moment, but the only reason for this is the difference in business models. Once Apple has more financial incentives to collect and analyze user’s data, they will do so without a moment’s hesistation. Besides, Apple is not a brand I would be happy to support further in any way, thinking of their treatment of workers, supply chain, not paying taxes, etc…

I did a bit of research and came upon a promising project - the /e/-foundation. While there have been and are other projects with similar goals, /e/-foundation seems both technologically, as well as in regards to their mission and how they go about things, like a sustainable and promising alternative to the current duopoly.

How

Unfortunately, the user-experience for switching to /e/-OS is still a bit rough and not optimized for beginners. However, for some phones, there is an easy-install beta, for example for the Samsung Galaxy 7, here. I did the process manually a couple of months ago, so I can’t really speak to how “easy” the installer is, but it looks promising!

Currently, it seems to only support Linux, but since they have made a lot of progress in this regard already, I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the time you’re reading this, the installer is out of beta and available on Win/OS X.

The /e/-foundation also has refurbished phones for sale, in case you need a new phone anyway and they plan a service where you can send in your phone and let them do the switch. However, if you simply want to switch to /e/-OS at the time of writing this (mid 2020), you’ll have to bite the bullet and take a bit of a dive. ;)

This only works, if you have a smartphone which is on their list of supported devices. There, you can also check out the installation steps.

Generally, the manual installation consists of:

It’s not many steps, but if you never did it before and with the danger of bricking your device in the back of your head, it can be a bit daunting. That said, it was my first time flashing my phone and everything worked out nicely, when I followed the instructions step-by-step.

After that’s done, the setup process is the same as with any other Android device, except that you don’t have to set up a Google account and without annoying Samsung/LG/whatever tracking garbage nagging you to use it.

You CAN (fully optional) create an /e/-foundation cloud account, which will provide many of the services you’re used from Google, albeit a bit less extravagant, but with full data protection - a good trade off in my book. :)

Using /e/-OS

At this point, I’ve been using /e/-OS for almost half a year and I’m very happy with it. I believe switching to non-Google apps beforehand helped, since I already had alternatives set up. I had to get the APK’s of 2-3 apps, but had no trouble installing them and getting them to run.

The issues I noticed were that some apps were a bit slower (especially Fastmail seems to have a rendering problem on /e/-OS). I had a couple of crashes after using the camera, but that was patched and the battery drains a bit quicker, but not much.

I have a SM-GF930F (Samsung Galaxy), so depending on your phone, your experience might be different. Also, my banking app didn’t work, which is an issue on their side (they block custom OSes for security reasons), but the only thing I noticed in that case, is that I absolutely don’t need a banking app on my phone. ;)

Other than that, it works very nicely. There is a custom app store, where you can suggest new apps as well and the ecosystem is growing steadily.

Conclusion

It’s still, unfortunately, very difficult to escape the fangs of surveillance capitalism. Data privacy is very far from being the default.

That said, the /e/-foundation looks like a promising project, which solves the problem of data privacy for smart phones very well already and has made great strides towards more mainstream adoption.

After using /e/-OS for almost half a year now, I became a loyal supporter and a happy customer of their product. :)

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