Eelo: A Google-less Android alternative emerges

Linux pioneer Gaël Duval is working on an easy-to-use, Google-free, pro-privacy Android clone for your smartphone.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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Dislike Apple's iPhone proprietary software with its battery malware? Tired of having Google look over your shoulder on Android? You're not alone. Gaël Duval, creator of the popular early Linux distribution, Mandrake Linux, is sick and tired of both, so he's building his own Android-based mobile operating system: eelo.

Duval thinks, "Apple, Google, Facebook etc., business models are harmful for our economical and social environments." In particular, he wants his privacy back. Stock Android depends on Google services, which means he doesn't control his privacy. So, eelo is being designed with open-source software to preserve privacy while still using online services and adding a more attractive interface.

Unlike the failed CyanogenMod, Duval has no intention of turning eelo into a business. "I want eelo to be a non-profit project 'in the public interest,'" he said.

Before turning his talents to building eelo, Duval looked at alternatives. Duval said [sic], "I looked at Firefox OS. But, as I want eelo to be for 'for Mum and Dad.'"

Duval, however, will not try create a Linux-based smartphone operating system as others have attempted. That's because, frankly, building a complete operating system on smartphone hardware isn't easy. Just ask Mozilla, Canonical, or even Microsoft. Instead, Duval is launching eelo from the existing Android clone LineageOS.

LineageOS is a CyanogenMod fork. But, Duval explained, it's not enough for his purposes: "The core of AOSP [Android Open Source Project]/LineageOS is usable, and performing well, but it's not good enough for my needs: the design is not very attractive and there are tons of micro-details that can be showstoppers for a regular user. Also, unless you are a geek, LineageOS is not realistically usable if you don't want Google inside."

Duval admits he's no Android expert. "The bad news is that I'm new to Android development and I don't consider myself a great developer," he said. Fortunately, "The good news is that I have found a very talented full-stack developer who is interested in the project. We have agreed, as a first collaboration, to release a new launcher, new notification system and new 'control center.'"

After several weeks of development, eelo is running as a beta.

The real challenge isn't building a new front-end. It's removing Google Play Store, Google Play Services, and Google Services. That's not easy. While Android developers don't have to use any of them, they are very useful.

For installing programs, Duval is turning to the alternative Android program repositories F-Droid and APKPure. Ideally, he wants an an "eelo store," which would deliver both official free applications like APKPure and open-source applications such as offered in F-Droid.

To replace Google Services, Duval plans on using MicroG. This is an open-source implementation of Google's proprietary Android user space apps and libraries. To deal with programs that use Google's SafetyNet Attestation Application Programming Interface (API) -- an API that checks to make sure the application runs in a Google Android compliant environment -- Duval thinks eelo will probably use Magisk Manager. This is a program that enables Android applications to run on smartphones, such as rooted systems, that would normally block them.

For search, the plan is to offer privacy-enabled DuckDuckGo and the new privacy oriented search engine Qwant. You'll also be able to pick your own search engine, since as Duval admits, "in some cases, it [Google] is still offering the best results."

Then, there are all the invisible internet services most people never think about, such as Domain Name System (DNS), which can also be used to track you. To deal with this, by default, eelo will use the Quad 9 DNS. The Global Cyber Alliance (GCA)'s Quad 9 both preserves privacy while blocking access to known malicious sites.

Low-level proprietary smartphone hardware drivers remain a problem -- but, short of building an eelo phone from the circuits up, that's beyond eelo's current scope.

It's still early days for eelo, and Duval is welcoming support both on eelo's KickStarter page, where the current goal is to raise $120,000, and by talking directly to him via e-mail at gael@eelo.io or by following him on Twitter or Mastodon.

Can it work? While alternatives to Android and iOS have failed more often than not, Android forks have had more success. With people increasingly desiring more privacy, I think eelo has an excellent chance of becoming a viable niche operating system.

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