The founder of the privacy respecting version of Android, /e/, says the time is right for phone makers to adopt an operating system that isn’t dependent on a single company.
On May 20 we learned that Huawei won’t be able to ship Android any more on their smartphones, with likely severe consequences for their mobile device business.
Huawei has probably played a questionable game with user data and corporate data. This has led governments to discourage the usage of Huawei devices, which is a fair and understandable attitude.
However, what Huawei really didn’t understand is that their dependency on Google/Android technology and services would put them into this terrible situation. Discussions have moved out beyond regular commercial and trade arguments, and are now clearly out of control.
They should have learned from the past: the USA has a significant track record when it comes to embargoes and export restrictions. They don’t even hesitate to force their allies to apply the same restrictions, by threatening them more or less directly, commercially, and financially.
For Huawei, what we witness today is the result of 10 years of strategic blindness. They should have realized that when they sell a smartphone, most of the value is in the software, not in the hardware. Therefore, they shouldn’t have become so reliant on Google/Android for the software: this hard dependency is a major risk for any mobile business.
Smartphone Makers Should (Really) Unite Around a Common, Independent Project
In the 90s, big tech firms like Intel, IBM, and others came to understand that they ought not rely solely on Microsoft/Sun/Oracle as business software partners. They could see that putting all their eggs in one basket was huge risk for their continued businesses in the long run.
So what did they do? They started to support Linux, the geek OS of the 90s! They invested in Linux companies, they joined the Linux Foundation. And now Linux is everywhere, and Intel, IBM, and others still have strong and diversified businesses.
Android should be like Linux. It should be an infrastructure software project upon which other businesses can build more value and yet stay independent from monopolistic proprietary software vendors.
The Time Is Right and the Opportunity Is Huge
Growing concerns about data privacy and other emerging technologies make now the right time to disrupt the mobile market and begin a new era in this field.
The /e/ OS is proof that a credible alternative is possible. It can replace the Google flavor of Android. It’s Google-free at every level, yet still compatible with all Android applications, and provides by default a more virtuous environment in terms of default online services: search, mail, drive… All these ship by default with the /e/OS and provide a great option for people and organizations who aspire to something better and more ethical to use in our new digital world.
Ultimately, we will also have to break free from Google services and the Android application environment. And that’s where a new, emerging technology will help: progressive web applications (PWA) are a new way to design and release mobile applications. PWAs are multi-platform (and thus cheaper and faster to implement and maintain for app publishers). They can be used instantly, without the need to pre-install them, but still retain the same benefits of native mobile apps when it comes to things like local storage and off-line functionality.
With PWAs, there will be no longer any need for the Google Play store: publishers will be able to serve their apps directly to the consumer, or through repositories which aren’t closed worlds. /e/ will start to add support for progressive web apps through their repository of applications.
Ultimately we will probably be able to build an ecosystem where all apps are no longer reliant on the Android framework. After this period of transition where native Android apps and PWAs will co-exist, any free-software mobile operating system, such as KaiOS, PureOS and others, will gain the full benefit of this new app ecosystem.
We stand right now at the crossroads in many things: geopolitical change, privacy concerns, new technologies… Would you, smartphone makers, collaborate to build a better and more ethical mobile ecosystem, along with open-source communities, whilst regaining improved value from this market?
The opportunity is huge; it’s not too late, but the time to act is now.
Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this article was originally published on Gaël Duval’s blog.
Gaël Duval currently heads the /e/ project, which produces a privacy respecting and “Google-free” Android-based phone operating system, as well as the founder of Cleus, that assists corporations and startups with new projects, research and development, as well as business development. He was also the original developer of the now defunct Mandrake Linux distribution, and a co-founder of Mandrakesoft.