I've been trying to degoogle my life as much as possible lately, but there are 2 main holdouts: youtube, and Android. While I still haven't found a competent enough youtube alternative, apart maybe from LBRY, I might just have found the Android replacement I was looking for! Let's take a look at the /e/ operating system !
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What is /e/
"e" is a nonprofit project, backed by the /e/ foundation. Its goal is to provide a compeltely de-googled version of Android. This is in the strictest sense, as anything that might call to Google has been plucked out of the operating system: the google services, app store, default applications, even the time server and DNS have been changed.
The /e/ operating system is the result: it can be installed on a lot of Android smartphones, from a fairly wide selection of manufacturers, or you can order a refurbished smartphone from the /e/ website More recently, /e/ has become available on the Fairphone 3 as well, which you can buy preinstalled with /e/ from their online store.
Gael also told me that the PinePhone might be a target at some point, and they already had a port for the PineBook.
As you won't be using any Google services, the /e/ project feels that you also need a few services for day to day use, that's why they provide you with a free /e/ account. This is basically your own user account on the /e/ project's Nextcloud, with an email address that ends in e.email, as well as contacts, a calendar, some file storage, photos, and tasks.
In term of features, the /e/ team is also working on End to End encryption, which is proving tricky to implement, as well as the ability to self host the /e/ online services if you want to have as much storage space as you'd like and control your data 100%.
They also have an SMS to cloud feature that allows you to keep your messages when you change phones, and are working on the ability to let users log their geolocation in the cloud if they want to, to be able to find their device if it gets lost or stolen.
The /e/ OS experience
The /e/ OS is very inspired by iOS in terms of look and feel, out of the box. You get a default grid of icons, some widgets when you swipe left, no standard Android app drawer, and a global search if you swipe from the top.
The OS ships with default apps for everything you might need out of the box, and all of these apps are open source, just like the OS itself.
Most of these are forks of other open source applications, for example, the web browser is a de-googled fork of Chromium, the mail client is a fork of K-9, the camera is a fork of OpenCamera...
Some apps are the default Android applications, like the contact, clock, calculator, keyboard, or gallery, and some are just preinstalled apps available anywhere alse, like MagicEarth for maps, PDFViewer Plus for PDFs, or OpenTasks for the todo list.
Using these applications, you also won't help but notice the Android roots behind them: older tab bars, three dot menus and pop-ups abound, and look like the stuff you'd have been using on an Android Kit Kat smartphone. This doesn't mean they're bad, but it does look a bit dated compared to the smooth interfaces of today. Some might prefer this older style, but I know I don't.
But why would you prefer /e/ over another Android custom ROM ? Well, as Gael Duval puts it, they are not targeting tech savvy users, or geeks. They want to offer a simple option that even beginners can get to grips with, without jumping through too many hoops and sacrificing convenience.
/e/ offers integrated services out of the box so you don't have to look for them intially, they put a lot of effort in the launcher user experience, and they are 100% Google Free. They are probably the only one to address the low level stuff as well, like the connectivity checks, or the NTP server, while most other custom ROMs still send information to Google.
/e/ doesn't try to reinvent the wheel here: they provide their own app store, that is basically a mirror of the applications available on the play store. Not all of them will be as up to date as the ones available on Googl's markeplace, and some of them won't be available, but the selection is pretty large here.
You also get some nice touches that you won't find on competing stores, like a privacy score. This is determined by scanning the apks and identifying the permissions they require, as well as the trackers they include, so you know, when you install an app on the /e/ store, what it will collect, and if you can reliably use it or not.