I have concerns about the likes of Google and Apple slurping up as much info as they can about me from my phone. I’ve tried looking online for alternatives and found mentions of things like /e/, Lineage, Sailfish OS etc, but they assume a level of tech knowledge far above what I have as a layman. So, are there any phones that are 100% free from Google and Apple software and hardware? How easy are such phones to obtain? Steve
Very easy. You can pick up a Nokia 105 (2017 edition) for about £15 or a dual-sim Nokia 106 (2018 edition) for about £16. These are only 2G phones but they have built-in FM radios, they can send texts, they are great for making phone calls and they are not based on Google or Apple technologies. A 3G or 4G phone would cost a bit more …
Of course, you may also want to do smartphone-type things such as email and web browsing. In that case, buy a GPD Pocket 2, GPD MicroPC, One Mix Yoga, One Mix 1S, One Mix 2S or similar just-about-pocketable computer running Microsoft Windows 10 on a 7in screen. (GeekBuying stocks several models and is taking reservations on the One Mix 1S.) Mini-laptops may look expensive but they are cheaper than high-end smartphones.
This answers your question but it is obviously not the solution you are looking for …
The problem is that most people – including me – want to use Googly things on their phones. Gmail is the dominant email service, YouTube is the dominant short video provider, Google Search and Google Maps are very useful and Google Chrome is the most widely used web browser. There may be viable and sometimes preferable alternatives but you have to make an effort to use them. Most people don’t want to make the effort.
Indeed, it looks as though the next generation of candy-bar phones will also include Google. Nokia’s latest 4G feature-phone, the Nokia 8110 “banana phone”, runs the KaiOS operating system, in which Google has invested $22 million. The Alcatel Go Flip 2, JioPhone and Orange Sanza are alternative KaiOS phones available in North America, India and Africa respectively. (Kai is named from the Chinese word for open, not the undead protagonist in the Lexx science fiction series.)
KaiOS includes WhatsApp – its main selling point – plus a web browser, Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps and Google Assistant. It’s claimed to be the second most popular operating system in India and could manage that in Africa. Some KaiOS phones cost less than $20.
KaiOS started as a fork of B2G (Boot to Gecko), which was an open source continuation of Firefox OS, which Mozilla stopped developing at the end of 2015. Gonk, the operating system underneath Gecko (which is Firefox’s web-rendering engine) is a small Linux kernel derived from Google’s AOSP, the Android Open Source Project.
In other words, the OS most likely to become a global alternative to Apple’s iOS and Google Android isn’t – and isn’t likely to be – 100% free from Google software. Even if it is not KaiOS, any future OS might use parts of AOSP because it is easier than developing everything from scratch. It could also pre-package access to some Google properties, even if they are just web apps, because most people want to use them.
A string of failures …
The fact that we have, essentially, a duopoly in the smartphone business is not for want of trying. Microsoft entered the market with a version of Windows running on ARM-based smartphones and it even made Windows available free on small-screen devices. The people who owned Windows phones seemed to love them and in 24 countries it overtook Apple’s iPhone in market share. However, the lack of apps was a major stumbling block and Microsoft abandoned its challenge, having lost billions of dollars in the attempt.
You can still buy Windows phones but most date from 2015-16 and will soon be out of support. I didn’t recommend buying them when they came out so I really wouldn’t recommend one now.
Canonical also had a go at the smartphone market with its Linux-based Ubuntu Touch. It failed. In this case, the development was taken over by the UBports Community, which developed a port for the OnePlus One smartphone in 2015. There are now a few others but I don’t expect Ubuntu Touch phones to appear in your local high street.
South Korea’s two smartphone manufacturers, Samsung and LG, would also love to have an independent operating system but success is unlikely. Samsung tried with Tizen, which was supported by the Linux Foundation. The Samsung Z series was launched in India and didn’t do well enough but Tizen is used in Samsung Gear smartwatches. LG could have a go with Palm’s Linux-based webOS, which it acquired from HP in 2013. WebOS first appeared on Palm Pre smartphones in 2009 but LG has mainly used it in smart TV sets.
Sailfish started with another failed Linux project, Nokia and Intel’s MeeGo. The latest version uses a graphical shell from Jolla, the Finnish company that appears to be its major backer. Sailfish can be ported to more alternative smartphones than Ubuntu Touch but I can’t see any current phones with Sailfish pre-installed. The same is true for both /e/ (formerly Eelo), which is a sort of de-Googled Android, and LineageOS, which is a reborn CyanogenMod.
You main hope is Purism’s forthcoming Librem 5, which seems to be exactly what you want. Whether it can buck the trend remains to be seen.
In general, the problem with Linux on smartphones looks much like its problem on PCs. Many and various groups enjoy developing new versions of the operating system, which are all more or less doomed from birth. None of them have the skills, the interests or the money to create viable platforms that include the hardware, apps, services, packaging, marketing, advertising, distribution and support on the sort of scale needed to sustain a real product. Without those, they are unlikely to attract much interest beyond hobbyists and enthusiasts.
Things may change thanks mainly to the current American president. Trump sent China and the rest of the world a wakeup call by trying to exclude Huawei – the world’s second-largest smartphone manufacturer and the leader in 5G – from using American technology. Huawei was already developing its own Android app-compatible operating system, currently known as Hongmen OS, as an alternative. The potential loss of up to $30bn in sales per year suggests there will be no shortage of money or manpower for its future development.
Indeed, China has a powerful incentive to replace all the American technology it uses with home-grown alternatives. This may take decades but in the long run, it will hurt Google, Intel, Qualcomm and numerous other US companies. The genie is out of the bottle and the Americans will never be able to put it back.
Hongmen, aka Ark OS, may not have a lot of appeal in Europe but it could do well in Asian countries that already do more trade with China than with the US.
Meanwhile, the EU’s latest antitrust case against Google should allow phone manufacturers to offer alternative browsers and search engines. It should also enable Android smartphone suppliers to sell phones with alternative versions of Android in Europe, which Google did not allow them to do before. A major player such as Samsung or Huawei could therefore test the market with a Google-free Android phone. In which case, you can vote with your wallet.
Remember the apps!
Whatever happens with Apple and Google, people buy smartphones to run apps and most apps appear to be compromising your privacy. In 2017 a study from the University of California at Berkeley found that around 70% of apps shared your data with third-party services (PDF).
A recent Washington Post story based on Disconnect.me technology found trackers were rife in the journalist’s iPhone apps. Google, of course, banned Disconnect Mobile from its Play store way back in 2014. In a blogpost, the company wrote: “Google refuses to explain their decision, other than to say that our app won’t be allowed if it interferes with any ads; even ads that contain malware and steal your identity.”
The app economy, like the web economy, is ultimately based on surveillance. That isn’t likely to change unless the EU does something about it. And so far, despite the GDPR and three antitrust cases against Google, the EU has left smartphone tracking revenues unharmed.
Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com
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