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The Murena One shows exactly how difficult it is to degoogle your smartphone

The Murena One shows exactly how difficult it is to degoogle your smartphone
Written by admin_3fxxacau

An Android phone without Google. No Google Apps, No Google Play Services, No Dynamic Google Assistant. No Google surveillance and data spying, no relentless ad targeting, no feeling that privacy is a useless exercise. Some companies, like Huawei, have been forced to figure out how to build this type of device. A few others have tried to preserve your privacy and to fight the tyranny of Big Tech. None of this ever really worked.

Murena’s team has been working on de-googling Android phones for a few years, dating back to 2017 when Gael Duval created an operating system he originally called Eelo. “Like millions of others, I HAVE BECOME A PRODUCT OF GOOGLE”, Duval written in 2017. He said he wanted to create something as good as other Android software, without all the oversight. “I need something that I could even recommend to my parents or my children,” he wrote. “Something attractive, with guarantees for more privacy. Something 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 supposed to be ready for prime time: Murena releases what it calls “/e/OS V1”, as well as the company’s first-ever smartphone, the $369 Murena One.

As a first hardware effort, it’s reasonably impressive: a smooth glass slab with a 6.5-inch screen, an eight-core MediaTek processor, a fingerprint reader on the side, and three cameras in a small bump at 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 seems to have splurged here, which COO Alexis Noetinger says was out of necessity. “People are willing to make a lot of trade-offs when they move to a more privacy-focused environment,” he said, “but we’ve seen that the camera is the most likely thing people can be very picky.”

We’ll have to test them both more before we can give a full verdict, but in my limited testing they both seem to be decent cameras, but nowhere near what you’d expect on a recent Google, Apple or Samsung call.

The Murena One is a fairly simple Android phone, at least on a hardware level.
Image: Moray eel

In order to rid his device of any possible remnants of Google, Murena had to build an incredible amount of stuff. The /e/OS software comes with: a custom messaging app, so you don’t need Google Messages; a browser to replace Chrome; a mapping application that uses OpenStreetMap data instead of Google data; an email client, calendar, file storage system, contacts app, and pretty much everything 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 assistantnamed Elivia, so you won’t miss Google Assistant.

Murena has also built cloud back-ends for many of these services, so you can check your mail in the /e/OS mail app, but also use your /e/ email address instead of an address ending in gmail.com. All of your online services reside in Murena Cloud rather than on Google or Microsoft services. To some extent, all you’re really doing here is swapping one centralized vendor for another, but Murena says all of its products are built with the same anti-surveillance privacy principles as its smartphones.

It’s an admirable effort, but even Murena can’t go further by abandoning Google. Every company that’s ever tried this, from Huawei’s Harmony OS to ill-fated projects like Ubuntu Touch and Firefox OS, has finally discovered the same thing: Without the Android app ecosystem, your phone is dead to death. arrival. So Murena tried to have his cake and eat it too: the company swapped Google’s Play Store for the “App Lounge,” which lets you install all the major Android apps – including, yes, those made by Google – but have no sign of Google branding.

To use the App Lounge, however, you must agree to its terms of service, which states at the very top that you have two options – sign in with your Google account or browse the lounge anonymously – but either way your app – download relationship is primarily with Google. You just download Play apps from a different looking store. The salon gets its information directly 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 dig into the settings and choose to only see open source apps and progressive web apps, but that pretty seriously limits the number of apps available.

Connecting to Google goes quite directly against Murena’s promises and has done many early Murena testers are crazy, but I don’t think Murena had any choice but to handle it that way. “A smartphone without Google’s oversight” is a compelling idea for many users, but “a smartphone without any of the apps you want” is a dealbreaker for just about everyone. Noetinger says that of course Murena could have built a Linux phone that would fulfill everyone’s privacy dreams, but he wouldn’t have run any apps. And no one would have wanted it. “We need people to find apps,” he says, “otherwise we’re going to connect to a small number of people, who will find the project great, but that’s where it stops.” Murena is trying to walk a fine line here, but the truth is, that line just doesn’t exist. You simply can’t get the full Android experience without inviting Google into the equation.

Instead, when you sign in to Google or use its services, Murena tries to mitigate the data Google may collect. It builds on a project called MicroG it’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 mostly works, although it took a lot of searching through the settings to 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: Moray eel

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

Advanced Privacy has its own trade-offs, however. For one thing, it’s hard to use weather or map apps when your phone thinks you’re in Singapore, like mine did when I first started it from my home in Virginia. Many apps are also geotagged in some way, so I had to turn off all protection for apps like Netflix and YouTube TV. (Oh yeah, and I’ve downloaded YouTube and YouTube TV because Murena can’t replace them, so Google got me there anyway.) Murena is trying hard to make settable, forgettable privacy software, but it’s over by requiring more fiddle than I wanted.

All /e/OS is still based on Android, of course. The device I’m using is running a spin-off of Android 10 based on Lineage OS, an Android spin-off based on the old CyanogenMod project. (That’s a fork of a fork! And LineageOS is up to Android 12, 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 announced its intention to rethink how notifications workfor example, and 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 just how entrenched Google is in our digital lives, and how much the company has taken control of its supposedly open-source operating system. The only way to free Android from Google, it seems, is to make everything a little worse on Android. And the only way to improve it is to rebuild it from scratch. It is going to be difficult for anyone to succeed, no matter how fervently they believe in the mission.

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