After a community survey, Fairphone announced that they would sell their sustainable smartphone to me, as well as to others in the future with an alternative operating system. This would mean a handset that is powered by Android albeit without any of Google’s services – and it does seem to be a far better option than relying on Huawei.
When I read Fairphone’s press release, it was clear to me immediately: This project has a better chance of success than Huawei’s attempt with its mobile services. In short: Smartphone manufacturer Fairphone and the software foundation eFoundation will work together in the future to sell the Fairphone 3 that comes pre-installed with the /e/ OS. This Android variant will work without any of Google’s services, although it replaces them in such a manner where numerous Google-dependent apps can be booted up without having to encounter error messages, unlike with a Google-less Huawei or Honor smartphone (see my self-experiment with a Google-less Honor).
What makes /e/ OS different from Huawei/EMUI?
The eFoundation’s operating system is based on open source development and focuses on privacy. /e/ OS replaces many Google services with its own cloud services (email, calendar, address book, photo backups) and with the MicroG framework.
The former is also offered by Huawei to its users, where it can be found in the HiCloud after all. The Chinese company is currently trying to implement the latter in the form of Huawei Mobile Services, to a limited degree of success that will require more time to gain traction. However, in everyday life, the MicroG framework does provides a more reliable service.
Car sharing apps such as DriveNow and other applications that are strongly linked to Google services would make MicroG believe that Google services are available. There are no error messages to deal with, where the apps will then be able to open our rental car. I had also tried to experience “Android without Google” – long before the US-China trade war.
What makes Fairphone different from Huawei?
To be fair, it has to be said that Fairphone is working without experiencing any pressure to act, and its customers are also not forced to jump aboard the /e/ OS bandwagon. So while I can easily install Google apps on a Fairphone 3 (even if I buy it with /e/ OS), installing the Play Store on a Google-free Huawei smartphone could be one of the worst hacks with a potential total loss of privacy.
Huawei is no longer allowed to offer Google services on its new devices (it goes both ways – Google is also no longer allowed to grant Huawei new licenses). However, no one is preventing Huawei from allowing its bootloaders to be unlocked. This would mean that users could install alternative firmware such as the /e/ OS that we talked about above or a lineage OS with Google apps. Why Huawei wants to refrain from this option, I already suspected in the text linked above.
Fairphone, on the other hand, wants to give its users as much control as possible over their devices. This also includes self-determination when it comes to which type of software you would like to run on the smartphone. For the Fairphone 2, Fairphone Open was an official Google-less alternative to stock Android. However, due to the lack of a MicroG framework, it had the same shortcomings as the Google-free EMUI.
So with the Fairphone 3, a solution for the obvious usability problem (no car sharing apps, no reasonable App Store, etc.) had to be found. Instead of developing these themselves, the Dutch are counting on co-operation. After all, many hands make light work. So in a community vote, their own customers decided that it should be known as the eFoundation.
What makes the cooperation so strong
I see great potential in an official cooperation between smartphone manufacturers and ROM developers. Because developers of third-party firmware – including foundation, suffer from the secrecy of hardware suppliers.
/e/-OS users complained in the forum about the camera’s poor quality in the Galaxy S7. This is due to the fact that the ROM developers either do not know or are not allowed to use large parts of the image processing of the original software for licensing reasons.
Since Fairphone is now officially approved and even supports ROM development by the /e/ team, such obstacles are no longer to be expected. I have contacted Fairphone and am waiting for technical details from their side.
Offering an alternative to Google services will appeal to many Fairphone customers. I suspect that there is a large group of people who think about sustainability and yet take privacy issues seriously. And the fact that these people can now buy their smartphones directly from professional un-Googlers is a stroke of genius in my book.
Luckily, the special thing about this is that neither hacks nor coercion is necessary. Both the user and the smartphone manufacturer are free to choose whether the Fairphone 3 should have Google services. If so, Fairphone offers a Google-licensed ROM for download. If not, there is a feature-packed, well supported, and official /e/-OS ROM available for download and installation. In such a smartphone market, this sounds like the best compromise between freedom and everyday usability that I know of.
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