How good is Google Apps

The information portal for safe cell phone use

If you buy a smartphone in stores, you not only get a technical device, but also a preinstalled operating system. As a rule, you can choose between Google's Android and Apple's iOS. In both cases the software is proprietary, which means that the two companies define the functions and limits of the technology behind closed doors. In use, the devices send them a lot of information about the users.

While Apple basically locks its software so that no one can easily see it, Google's Android is essentially open source. Everyone can adopt the underlying code and develop it further. This is how some free Android systems came into being. They give users more freedom, for example they can set up their phones without any Google services.

On many Android devices, you can replace the preinstalled operating system with a different one - but this is not entirely safe. When replacing the software (in the jargon "flashing") you risk as a beginner to paralyze your mobile phone forever.

/ e / - Google-free Android for everyone

The French e Foundation offers an alternative for everyone who wants to use a free Android but does not dare to flash it. You can buy a cell phone with only open source software from the affiliated company eSolutions.

The operating system / e / is developed by the foundation itself. It is a modified version of the Android-based free system LineageOS. So far, the software has been available as a beta version, the first finished version should appear this year.

/ e / is also available free of charge for self-installation for almost 100 different smartphone models. In the future it should also be possible to send in your own device for installation.

Security advice on the bootloader

In order to install / e /, the Android launcher, the so-called boot loader, must remain open on most devices. For devices sold with / e / pre-installed, the Fairphone 3/3 + is the only exception. An open bootloader can facilitate targeted attacks on the device. People in exposed situations, for example activists or journalists, should be aware of this.

With newer devices with automatic encryption, however, such attacks are complicated and costly and are not part of the repertoire of common cyber criminals. From our point of view, the use of / e / does not pose a risk to normal consumers.

The e Foundation was founded in 2018 by the French developer Gaël Duval, who previously worked on Linux projects. It is largely financed through donations. Income also comes from the sale of smartphones with pre-installed / e / as well as paid cloud storage space.

The aim of the foundation is a data-secure, completely “googled” Android that is easy to use for everyday users. In addition to 21 permanent employees, freelance developers help with the development of the operating system in many countries.

All functions that normally send data to Google servers have either been removed or deactivated at / e / according to the foundation. For this, / e / offers Google-free alternatives.

Our test on the Fairphone

Flashing our device using a Linux computer works fine. We are installing the latest version of / e / based on Android 9 for the Fairphone 3. The e Foundation provides instructions for each supported device model.

/ E / is preinstalled on these devices

This is what / e / looks like

The Fairphone started up in just 17 seconds. And what does / e / look like now? Very much like Android as you know it. If I swipe down from the top of the screen, the quick settings appear as usual. Below are four interchangeable apps for quick access.

Swipe right. A weather widget and a search bar will appear. That doesn't bring me to Google, but to the website of the / e / -search engine Spot. I'm sure anyone who knows their way around Android will get along with / e / right away.

There are apps named Mail, Maps, Gallery, Calendar, Radio, Notes and also a browser icon. I ask / e / where these programs come from and find out that many of the preinstalled apps are modifications of well-known open source software. The mail program is based on K-9 Mail, the photo app on OpenCamera, the search engine Spot is a variant of the free Google alternative Searx.

The idea behind it: Users shouldn't have to search for apps first, but should find everything they need right away, just like with Google and Apple. The code of all apps preinstalled with / e / is publicly available.

If you prefer to equip yourself completely, you can also get an / e / version without pre-installed apps.

This is what the app store offers

It gets exciting with the app installation, because of course I have to get by on / e / without the Google Play Store. Many providers provide their apps as a direct download on their website, but this does not seem to be a solution in terms of the simplest possible use.

I find what I expected: There is a pre-installed store called "Apps". There I not only discover the Messenger Signal, but also WhatsApp and Instagram. But not only that - there are all kinds of things. I'm looking for the ten most popular apps around the world - all available, including Facebook Messenger and TikTok. And the Google apps? Everyone there too. / e / itself is therefore pro data protection, but also leaves you the freedom to undo it again.

The "Apps" store also offers a filter function for open source apps and the integration of the app ratings from Exodus Privacy. The project analyzes apps and lists the built-in trackers and permissions.

On the basis of the Exodus privacy results, there is a point rating in "Apps", which does not always help, for example, both the consumer-friendly app store F-Droid and the Facebook app achieve six out of ten points. This is because both apps do not use external trackers, but require a range of access permissions. Means: Facebook comes off too well here, F-Droid too bad.

But more important: where do "apps" come from? After all, the infrastructure behind an app store is anything but trivial. Developers upload their own apps to Google and Apple stores; the F-Droid team builds the apps directly from the public code. Finding a technically secure and legally clean solution is not so easy for a new provider.

/ e / informs me by email that the e Foundation developed the store app itself, the content comes from the app store cleanapk.org. I'm trying to find out more about it, but cleanapk.org just vaguely states that the apps are either submitted by users or are available "in different places on the Internet".

It remains unclear who operates the website or how it is ensured that no harmful apps get into the memory. / e / emphasizes not being the owner of the app store. In its current form, "Apps" is still too insecure for me, so I use the F-Droid store and the direct download of apps as apk files.

App store is to be further developed

  • / E / told mobil sich.de that they had good experiences with the cleanapk.org service, as it provides a large number of well-known and regularly updated Android apps - including open-source apps from the F-Droid store.
  • According to information from cleanapk.org, all existing apps are unchanged originals, so far no evidence to the contrary has been found for / e /.
  • Before the end of this year, the e Foundation plans to systematically check apps and thus ensure that the products in their own store are actually the originals. The technical solution for this is currently still being worked on.
  • In addition, a malware scanner is to be integrated into "apps".

Account and cloud at / e /

If you use your smartphone with Google, you can easily synchronize your own data between different devices and apps via a linked Google account. Since / e / wants to be a full replacement for Google's Android, the e Foundation also operates its own cloud service.

Together with an / e / account, the cell phone becomes a “complete mobile ecosystem”, as it says on the website. Unlike Google, however, linking an account is not mandatory.

The / e / account includes an email address and a gigabyte of storage space in the cloud - you have to pay for more. 20 gigabytes cost at / e / 3.49 euros per month, you can increase up to 256 gigabytes.

For comparison: Google storage is also subject to a charge for larger amounts of data. There is 100 gigabytes of storage space for two euros a month, but in theory Google reads it along with it. The servers of the / e / cloud are encrypted and are located in the European Union, end-to-end encryption of the cloud data is planned.

A complete backup of the smartphone, for example to take your own data with you to a new device, is in development. The function should be available with the first completed version of / e / at the latest.

The synchronization of my data in the / e / account worked well in the test. Contacts, e-mail, calendar and gallery are automatically connected to my online account, for notes and tasks I first have to activate the synchronization function in the settings.

Conclusion: a very good beta

Through the correspondence with the spokespersons for / e /, it becomes clear to me once again what I already suspected: The separation of the operating system from Google is a lot of work.

The beta version is already largely Google-free, but not yet completely. Apps that normally use Google Play services for their operation run, according to the foundation, on / e / with microG, an open-source, tracker-free variant of Google Play services. In some cases, Google servers are currently still needed, for example for the push notifications of some apps - however, transmitted data is anonymized according to / e /.

As with Google's Android, the system updates for / e / come automatically over the Internet. It is currently too early to provide precise information on upgrades of the various devices (for example from Android 9 to Android 10) - the first finished version of / e / is to be published first.

Although experts are critically discussing the current status of the operating system, I think: The developers of / e / have come a long way in their endeavors to create a Google-free, data-efficient Android for everyone. The only downer is the self-built app store - the e Foundation should definitely find a safe solution here. In use, / e / is already convincing.

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