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.
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.
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.
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.