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December 27th, 2017

Eelo: Gaël Duval’s Open Source, Privacy Respecting Android Phone Clone

The man behind the first user-friendly Linux distribution now seeks to produce a free-as-you-want-it-to-be Android phone that respects user rights.

eelo logo

Are you ready for a new operating system for your Android phone? An operating system that’s totally free and thats main purpose isn’t to get you to consume? How about an operating system that, although based on Android, brings to the table some of the best aspects of Linux — like (eventually) it’s own repository of apps? Well, get ready, Gaël Duval is working to bring eelo to the table.

If Duval’s name seems familiar to you, it should. He’s the guy who in 1998 founded Mandrake, the distro that brought ease-of-use to the Linux table long before there was a Ubuntu. Mandrake made installing Linux easy in an age when you had to be something akin to a rocket scientist to get Linux up and running. It also brought graphical point and click configuration tools into play. New-to-Linux users no longer had to be command line whizzes to configure their systems.

Although MandrakeSoft, the company behind Mandrake (later called Mandriva because of both a trademark dispute revolving around the “Mandrake the Magician” newspaper comic strip and a merging of the distro with Connectiva), folded in 2011, the genes of the distro are still with us. PCLinuxOS, which once spent time near the top of the DistroWatch chart, started life as a Mandrake clone. The community-based distro Mageia unabashedly carries on the Mandrake mantle, complete with updated versions of the Drake configuration tools.

But as the Monkees once said, “that was then, this is now.”

In a move that most folks saw, at the very least, as wrong, Duval was forced out at the company he founded in 2006. The same year he co-founded the open source virtual desktop company, Ulteo, where he served as president and CTO until moving on in 2014. Since 2015 he’s been CEO at consulting firm Cleus, which he also founded, and since 2016 he’s been CTO at NFactory, something of a venture capital incubator, that he cofounded.

Right now, he’s working to get eelo off the ground.

In the first of a series of blog posts he began on November 29 announcing the eelo project, Duval explains that he’s starting with an existing open source version of the Android phone operating system, LineageOS. Although some might prefer a mobile operating system based on GNU/Linux, there are plenty of good reasons to chose Android as a starting point. For one thing, it will be a lot less work. Android is already optimized to work well on ARM-based mobile devices and to accommodate small screen sizes.

“[T]he core of AOSP/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.”

The project is already off to a good running start. Duval and his team, which includes Hathibelagal Ashraff as lead developer and Rhandros Dembicky as “artist-in-chief,” have already designed a replacement for the LineageOS launcher, which the project is calling BlissLauncher “just because it’s a great launcher.” They’ve also developed a new notification system and unlock screen.

Eelo BlissLauncher.
Eelo mobile operating system os

eelo notification system.

Next up is to get rid of Google, which is no easy task since Google in imprinted all over Android’s DNA.

Why get rid of Google? Do you have to ask?

“[W]hat we want is not only something good-looking, attractive and easy to use. We want more privacy! And Google services are not compatible with my idea of privacy.

“Therefore, we don’t want Google Services. We don’t want Google play store. And we probably don’t want most of Google apps such as Calendar, Email etc.

“Also, we probably don’t want Facebook either and some other so-called ‘free’ services. This will be user’s choice to install them or not. I know that we cannot change the world in one iteration, this will be step by step.

“Each of this point will need to be addressed in eelo. We will need an independent application repository, an independent and secure email provider, an independent online drive, online office services…”

Why a repository? Again, do you have to ask? Have you ever looked around on Google Play and tried to understand what app was open source, what was freeware, what was trying to steal your data and what was wanting to track you while servings ads. And while there are alternatives to Google’s little store, all of them come with either limitations or problems that could be deal breakers.

“I think we’d need an “eelo store” that would deliver both:

  • official free applications like APKPure
  • open source applications like in F-Droid

All that into a single, appealing and fast application, where users could check easily if an app is open source or not, where users could evaluate the application level of privacy, and where users could be able to report some scam issues. We definitely need to add this to the eelo roadmap.”

There is also the need to remove apps that are overly dependent on Google’s infrastructure, especially “Google Services,” a non-open source service that must be installed to use the Play Store. With the “eelo store,” that would be no great loss, except that Google Services provides some services that are necessary for some popular apps. For example, the GPS apps people use to find their way around town would seem to rely on the infrastructure.

Luckily, there is MicroG, an open source alternative to Google Services what will most likely be integrated into eelo. As will Magisk, another open source project to handle issues from apps that look to Google’s SafetyNet Attestation API to determine if an app is installable on a device. Among other things, the API doesn’t particularly like rooted devices and might prevent some apps from being installed on them.

eelo nextcloud open source phone

Nextcloud client on eelo.

Doing away with Google applications is also doable. For search there are DuckDuckGo, Qwant and the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time alternative, CommonSearch. For calendaring, emailing, word processing and the like, Duval and his team have been looking at OpenStreetMaps, Collabora, OnlyOffice, ownCloud and NextCloud. So far, DuckDuckGo, OpenStreetMaps, OnlyOffice and Nextcloud are considered the defaults.

Obviously, a project of this magnitude isn’t going to be cheap to develop and the good news is that eelo isn’t going to die on the vine. On December 21, Duval notified FOSS Force that eelo had started a Kickstarter campaign, seeking to raise $29,674 (or €25,000) in an all-or-nothing campaign, meaning that it the funding goal wasn’t reached, eelo takes nothing.

At press time, with 24 days left in the campaign, eelo has passed its goal, with $33,765 pledged so far.

More money would be better, however. Details on how the money will be spent, including how it will be spent in excess of the minimum goal, are available on the project’s Kickstarter page. If you have a few extra bucks in your pocket and you’re tired of turning your phone off at night or speaking in whispered tones when it’s on because you don’t trust it, you might want to consider making a small donation.

But if you’re good with living in an Orwellian world, by all means, keep your money and continue to use your off-the-shelf Android phone.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

7 comments to Eelo: Gaël Duval’s Open Source, Privacy Respecting Android Phone Clone

  • xABBAAA

    yeah, that’s right respect to the people and the freedom of the people, and sorry …

    now is closer to the New Year … and it all sounds bit, like …

    yeah, who produces the hardware thatha …

  • The more the merrier.

    I’m currently using LineageOS with microG and F-Droid. Plus the Amazon and Yalp stores for the handful of proprietary apps I can’t really do without.

    I’ve worked out a comfortable groove. But Duval is right: this is power user stuff, and not at all accessible for end users. Putting it all together in a package that’s attractive and easy to use would be a welcome contribution.

    Meanwhile, my eye is on the GNU/Linux-based alternatives. Sailfish is the most mature, but it’s got proprietary components. Canonical made a lot of mistakes with Ubuntu Touch, but it’s still got real potential, and UBports seems dedicated to making it into something that can work as a daily driver. Purism’s got the Librem 5 coming, which is supposed to support both GNOME and Plasma-based environments. Sooner or later, hopefully there will be a viable alternative to Google and Apple.

  • Vern R

    Yes the yalp store app performs these functions using lineage

  • Mike

    I wish him luck, but…yeah, good luck with that.

    I anticipate it supporting one or two phone models that are hopelessly obsolete before the software is even released, just like the other ongoing attempts to do the exact same thing (Replicant, etc.) The hardware manufacturers have a stranglehold over the market and they prefer closed solutions.

    Purism is no solution either. Much of their hoopla about privacy respecting hardware is just smoke and mirrors, representing very little practical difference from mainstream x86 laptops.

  • @Mike: I don’t see anything to indicate that Duval is planning to de-blob LineageOS, which would suggest that Eelo should run on any device that LineageOS does. There are quite a lot of them; see https://download.lineageos.org/ .

    I’ll agree that’s not a perfect solution. But it’s what we’ve got right now.

    The same goes for Purism: not a perfect solution, but another step in the right direction. PureOS just got endorsed by the FSF (see https://www.fsf.org/news/fsf-adds-pureos-to-list-of-endorsed-gnu-linux-distributions-1 ), which suggests Purism is at least interested in free software compliance; it’s not there yet at the firmware level, but that’s a prohibitive barrier in the x86 world, and even more difficult for phones. (Legally impossible, as I understand it; I believe US law requires that phone radios include proprietary firmware. Even Replicant can’t get around that restriction. Purism is at least going to decouple the radio from the CPU.)

    It’s fair to point out when a “free” device isn’t truly free, and that anything less than a fully free system is not good enough. But I think it’s also worth acknowledging when a project is a step in the right direction. Any option that’s more free than the options we had before is a good thing, even if it’s not a perfect thing.

  • Mike

    @Thad

    It isn’t about being perfect, it’s about advancing the state of freedom/privacy.

    I said I wished him luck…I just don’t see it changing the state of things with regard to privacy at all. I can’t really get excited by yet one more blob filled OS derived from another.

    Purism is a special case because I’ve followed them very closely since their original crowd-funding. They’ve given very misleading promises compared to what they’ve been able to deliver. They’ve stumbled along getting coreboot running on the Librem taking years longer than promised. I haven’t followed them lately, but last I checked it still had problems like disabling of the Inte ME leaving wifi inoperable. They also encouraged a lot of hoopla regarding Qubes and Whonix compatibility despite their machines having a single USB controller for all devices which breaks VM isolation, coreboot being unable to enable Vt-d extensions, and bluetooth which only works with a proprietary driver despite Purism’s laughable claim of hand picking every chip for maximum freedom even over price. At least they dropped bluetooth from their advertised specs, but it used to be there. Also, again I can’t get excited by yet another distro (PureOS) which doesn’t deliver anything above and beyond what’s already available (regarding freedom). There’s plenty to dislike about how Purism has handled things, essentially stringing along more knowledgeable customers with (so-far) mostly-empty promises while being borderline dishonest with the rest. I was an early supporter of Purism’s Librem campaign, but thank god I got out and got a refund before it was too late.

  • Eddie G.

    Anything that improves the user experience when it comes to phones is a welcome addition. Especially if it carves out any of Google’s stranglehold on devices. I for one am seriously looking forward to this venture, as I will buy one of their devices the minute they become available for public consumption. I’ve had enough of having to “allow” or “Deny” various apps I install…permissions to things like my camera, my contacts, my (PHOTOS!?….what the “bleep” does that have to do with GPS?…or some other app that has no reason to ask for that kind of data!?) So if this eliminates that one systemic problem (at least for me!) then I’m all for it!

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