An Android phone without Google. No Google Apps, no Google Play Services, no peppy Google Assistant. No Google surveillance and data sniffing, no incessant ad targeting, no feeling that privacy is a pointless exercise. Some companies, like Huawei, have been forced to figure out how to build this type of device. A few others have tried to protect their privacy and to resist Big Tech’s tyranny. None of this has ever really worked.
Murena’s team has been working to free Android phones from Googling for the past few years, starting in 2017 when Gael Duval developed an operating system he originally called Eelo. “Like millions of others, I’ve become a product of Google,” Duval wrote in 2017. He said he wanted to build something that’s as good as other Android software, without all the monitoring. “I need something that I can even recommend to my parents or my kids,” he wrote. “Something attractive, with guarantees for more privacy. Something we could build in a reasonable amount of time, something that just keeps getting better with time.”
The operating system, now called /e/OS, has been available on some devices for a while, but now the product is reportedly ready for prime time: Murena is releasing what it’s calling “/e/OS V1” along with the das the company’s first-ever smartphone, the $369 Murena One.
As a first hardware outing, it’s pretty impressive: a smooth glass slab with a 6.5-inch display, an octa-core MediaTek processor, a fingerprint reader on the side, and three cameras in a small hump on the back. The photographic specs are impressive too, including a 48-megapixel main sensor on the rear and a 25-megapixel punch-hole front camera for selfies. The camera was the only place where Murena appears to have indulged in big bucks here, which COO Alexis Noetinger says was inevitable. “People are willing to make quite a lot of compromises when they move to an environment that’s more privacy-focused,” he said, “but we’ve seen that the most likely thing that people can be very picky about is the camera .”
We’ll both have to test more before we can give a full verdict, but in my limited testing they both appear to be decent cameras, but far from what you’d expect from a recent Google, Apple or Samsung phone.
In order to rid his device of all sorts of Google leftovers, Murena had to build an incredible amount of stuff. The /e/OS software includes: a bespoke messaging app so you don’t need Google Messages; a browser to replace Chrome; a map app that uses OpenStreetMap data instead of Google; an email client, calendar, file storage system, contacts app, and pretty much everything else you would get in the Google Workspace suite; Apps for notes and tasks and music and even voice recording. Murena is even planning her own virtual assistant called Elivia so you won’t miss out on Google Assistant.
Murena has also developed cloud backends for many of these services, so you can check your email in the /e/OS email app, but also your /e/ email address instead of an email address ending in gmail.com. All your online services reside in Murena Cloud instead of Google or Microsoft services. To a certain extent, you’re really just trading one central vendor 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 as to drop Google. Every company that’s ever tried this, from Huawei’s Harmony OS to ill-fated projects like Ubuntu Touch and Firefox OS, eventually found the same thing: Without the Android app ecosystem, your phone is dead on arrival. So Murena tried his Having cake and eating it too: The company swapped out Google’s Play Store for the “App Lounge,” where you can install all the major ones Android apps — including, yes, Google’s — don’t show any sign of Google branding, though.
In order to use the App Lounge, however, you must accept the terms of service, which at the very top states that you have two choices — sign in with your Google account or browse the lounge anonymously — but either way, your app-downloading relationship is mostly with google. You are downloading Play apps in a different looking store. The lounge gets its information directly from the Play Store (without telling Google who you are, says Murena) and uses Google for all payment methods.
The App Lounge includes some apps that aren’t from the Play Store, and you can dive into the settings and choose to only see open-source apps and progressive web apps, but that limits the number of ones available to you Apps quite a bit.
The connection to Google pretty much contradicts Murena’s promise and infuriated many of Murena’s early testers, but I don’t think Murena had any choice but to handle it 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 deal breaker for almost everyone. Noetinger says Murena sure could have built a Linux phone that would fulfill everyone’s privacy dreams, but it wouldn’t have run apps. And nobody would have wanted it. “We need people to find apps,” he says, “otherwise we’re going to connect with a small group of people who think the project is great, but it’s going to end there.” Murena is trying to walk a fine line here, but the truth is, that ridge 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 minimize the data that Google may collect. It relies on a project called MicroG, which is essentially a more private clone of some of the libraries Google needs to run its apps, allowing you to use apps that require Google Play Services without actually using Google Play Services. It works most of the time, although it took me a lot of digging around in the 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’s overall approach to privacy seems less focused on stopping data collection altogether and more on security through obfuscation. When you enable Advanced Privacy in /e/OS, it uses a VPN to mask your location – either by picking a “random plausible location” anywhere in the world or letting you choose where you want to be – and even hides yours IP address from the websites you visit. It also tries to block trackers in every downloaded app and seems to do that quite successfully.
However, Advanced Privacy comes with its own set of tradeoffs. For one, it’s difficult to use weather or map apps when your phone thinks you’re in Singapore, as it did for me when I first started it up from my home in Virginia. Many apps are also geofenced in one way or another, 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 those, so Google got me there anyway.) Murena tries hard to make set-it-and-forget-it privacy software, but in the end it required more fiddling than I wanted.
The entire /e/OS is of course still based on Android. The device I’m using runs a forked version of Android 10 based on Lineage OS, an Android spinoff based on the old CyanogenMod project. (It’s a fork of a fork! And LineageOS stretches all the way to Android 12, so it’s a shame to see /e/OS lagging behind.) And with all of Murena’s work, it still looks like… Android. The organization has said it’s rethinking things like how notifications work and making other changes to how Android works, but for 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, what they’ve mostly shown me is how deeply rooted Google is in our digital lives and how much more control the company has taken over its supposedly open-source operating system. Apparently the only way to rid Android of Google is to make everything about Android a little worse. And the only way to eventually make it better is to build it from scratch. This will be difficult for anyone, no matter how strongly they believe in the mission.