With the constant and very public tug-of-war between Apple and Google over what kind of phones we carry around, sometimes the state of the actual data on those phones can get overlooked. Who owns your location history, or search history? Where else is that data stored, and for how long, and what control does the user have over it?
Gaël Duval, the founder of Mandriva Linux, believes that he has the answer to those questions with the creation of Eelo, a take on Android that attempts to remove all traces of Google other than the core operating system itself. Duval made a press tour earlier this year, and he reports now that Eelo is roughly a month away from a beta release, thanks to a pile of Kickstarter crowdfunding that help him build a team of collaborators.
But can a crowdfunded project really go up against a multibillion dollar empire like the one that Google has built? To remove Google from your phone is to remove Gmail, Google Drive, the Play Store, Google Docs, and other popular services. If you really want to get the company's presence off your Android phone, you pretty much have to reinvent its wheels.
But Duval may be that kind of inventor
In his defense, Duval is no stranger to Linux-based operating systems. He founded Mandrake Linux in 1998, forging one of the first relatively user-friendly desktop environments for open-source software (as this author can personally attest). It later became known as Mandriva, which has lately morphed into OpenMandriva Lx.
Duval hasn't been directly involved in that project since 2006, but he has not been idle. After operating as the CTO of Ultio for many years, he moved onto a startup incubator and is now questing to build the ideal secure mobile operating system.
The point is, Duval knows how to run a software company. But one does not simply rip Google out of an Android phone. So he and his team of 15 full-time contributors have been assembling a variety of alternatives -- some of which is a matter of connecting to pre-existing services, such as OpenStreetMaps. This alternative to Google Maps has the open-source map data that Duval wants, but he says that it still lacks an app to interact with the data in a way that he likes.
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It may also be difficult to make an argument for OpenStreetMaps in a car market that's increasingly turning to Google and Apple for integration into your infotainment system.
Despite Duval's well-established technical chops, though, Eelo isn't intended to only be used by technical people. As he said to ZDNet in December last year, he wants Eelo to be "for Mum and Dad." So although Eelo is based on LineageOS, itself a clone of Android that eschews its Google-ness, "[T]he design is not very attractive, and there are tons of micro-details that can be showstoppers for a regular user."
So what's left before Eelo's imminent public beta?
One of the most important steps is making Eelo widely compatible with Android apps without falling afoul of Google's security guidelines. If Eelo can't play nice with Android's SafetyNet API, for example, that means no contactless payments at the grocery store or anywhere else. Right now, the plan is to trick SafetyNet using a program called Magisk, but it's a constant cat-and-mouse game, which may not win over mainstream customers.
And there's downloading the apps themselves. Without the Google Play Store, users are left with potentially less enticing alternatives like F-Droid, which Duval has been using to compile a library of apps that you'll be able to downloading without having to create an account anywhere.
- While Eelo is a noble effort, the world around it has become increasingly difficult to imagine without YouTube, Google Maps, the Google Assistant, or Google Photos. Google may simply have too much momentum for a group like Duval's to scale up an alternative.
- Despite his ambition, Duval says that he does not want a Google-style empire. According to statements on his blog, Eelo will be the product of a non-profit organization. In fact, talk of how Eelo would generate revenue has been non-existent so far. Duval contends that Google makes its money on selling the user data collected from our phones, which is exactly what he is trying to get away from with Eelo.
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