Leaving Apple & Google - /e/ mobile OS next steps: a Roadmap for 2020
About a year ago, the first beta of /e/ OS, the first un-Googled and privacy-focused Android, was released. And we’ve been hard at work improving it.
For instance, /e/ now includes an application installer where most Android applications can be found, as well as open source applications (from the F-Droid repository). And we have added a privacy-score which reveals all the trackers embedded in each application:
Pre-installed /e/ smartphones
As the /e/ OS remains quite complex to install, we have partnered with a refurbisher to offer a range of smartphones pre-installed with /e/OS. It’s been available since summer 2019 in the EU, and with Australia/New Zealand coming very shortly. Arrangements for offering this in the US are also underway.
Still in beta, but already fully usable
We’re not going to rush the V1 release. One reason is that we still have a list of issues to fix to reach a fully stable OS. The other is that we are learning a lot from user feedback — what needs adding, what needs improving, and key expectations with regard to privacy and user experience.
Also we are continuously improving the online services part of /e/. One key difference between /e/ and other mobile ROMs is that it provides a range of online services as default. Users can get 5GB free storage at ecloud.global, the place where they can retrieve their documents, pictures, videos and emails, all synced from their /e/ OS smartphones. Based on NextCloud and other open-source software, it’s also the place where documents can be edited or shared online with office collaboration software.
And since August 2019, those online services can also be self-hosted!
But we have noticed that many users have already started to use /e/ OS daily. /e/ OS OTA update servers are getting pinged by more than 2,000 running smartphones each day, and close to 10,000 accounts have already been opened at ecloud.global.
So what’s under the hood for /e/ OS in 2020?
2020 is going to be crazy
We plan to release /e/ OS as V1 in Spring 2020.
For this, we still need to raise the bar in terms of quality and integration a little higher.
A new name!
Yes, “/e/” has some benefits (original, graphically interesting…) but also some issues: it makes people think /e/ is a geek-project, rather than a general purpose mobile operating system with a privacy focus.
But the worst thing about the “/e/” name is that it’s doesn’t work well with search engines, and you can’t even type this in a web browser URL/search bar, because it’s seen as a local file.
So, what we have in mind is actually to introduce several new names.
- one is going to be a project name, as “/e/” replacement
- another is going to be the mobile OS name
- and probably a new specific brand will also be introduced for more “consumer-oriented” products
Fixing bug, completing the unGoogling process…
Yes, software has bugs. Small bugs, bigger bugs… Our developers are putting a lot of effort into debugging the software. We are now well organized for this: we are using “sprint” development, we have a great team of dedicated testers, and we hope that we will be able to introduce systematic automated tests soon.
Also, we have been challenged several times about data leakage to Google servers. The truth is that we have discovered that Android core has Google stuff at all stages, starting with the connectivity check!
We have now removed most of these, and are still working on the remaining few. We want a 100% unGoogled mobile OS!
Adding more privacy features
Being 100% unGoogled will be a great achievement, but it’s not enough, because applications leak a lot of data as well.
So we have started to add some features to the OS, like a “privacy score” for each application in the /e/ application installer. It reveals all the trackers in each app (computed by Exodus Privacy analysing tools), and can help users to make wise choices…
But that’s not enough!
In 2020 we are going to introduce new features that will let users know in real time how much data is leaking from installed apps, and how to block the corresponding trackers. It will also offer a synthetic summary of these activities over time.
An /E/asy Installer!
/e/ OS is now available pre-installed on a variety of smartphones. But installing the ROM on a given device is a complex process that is only possible for tech-savvy users or people who have a lot of time to learn.
So we are currently creating a new tool that will allow anyone to install /e/ OS on any supported smartphone, just by plugging it into a PC (Linux, MacOS, or Windows) and following instructions.
Expect a Beta of this tool by February 2020.
/e/ OS cares a lot about user experience, because we think that benefiting from better privacy should not be only for geeks who can already customize their own OS and generally don’t care a lot about graphical and aesthetic aspects.
So we have started a design improvement process to integrate better icons in the OS settings, and offer more consistent colors and experience across the default applications.
It’s a first step before a full UI redesign from scratch.
An improved Android application installer
Our Android application installer is unique: it provides a mix of free commercial applications, the same as you can find on Google Play, and most of the open-source applications available at F-Droid.
No need to install several installers: one single place for all of them is enough.
We have added application ‘privacy scoring’, showing the number of trackers they include, and will also add an energy score for each app.
At the moment, the application installer relies partly on a third-party Android application provider, which limits the number of available applications. So we are talking with several partners to bring something better — more consistent, and with many more apps. This first step should be reached by Spring 2020.
On the long run, we are in discussing with several big actors on the mobile market. This will take more time, but we feel that we have an opportunity to have all Android apps available in /e/ at some point (without Google Play Store, of course).
Also, we will soon introduce PWA app support to this application installer. PWA applications are performant web applications that can free us from the Android/Google ecosystem.
Default apps uninstall & more cool features…
We have added support for Android Pie in 2019, and will add support for Android Q in 2020. This will allow us to support more recent smartphones.
One of the biggest new features we want to add in 2020 is the capability for users to uninstall most of the pre-installed applications.
This will also allow us to provide different “user profile themes” during the first-time usage wizard.
We recognise that different people have different needs, and they want different levels of protection in terms of privacy.
So in addition to the default user profile — which will be very similar to what we have now — we can think of:
- a 0-profile, with the bare minimum to be able to run the OS, without any installed application
- a FLOSS profile, where any default app will be open source, and where F-Droid is installed as default instead of the /e/ app installer
- a “007” profile, with a different set of installed apps, such as Tor Browser, Firefox Focus, and more encryption software…
Other new features will include:
- automatic SMS-to-cloud synchronization, and software to retrieve and send SMS from PCs
- an optional “last-hour’s geolocation-to-cloud” feature to retrieve stolen smartphones
- an option to hide some application icons in the launcher
- a better default PDF reader
- a better Camera app
And what for 2021?
Wait! That’s a lot of stuff already for a still relatively small project like /e/!
We’re thinking big because we know that privacy in IT is a growing concern, and we believe that privacy-by-design is going to become an industry standard.
As a result, there will be many areas where /e/ can bring something better to a large number of users, with an Assistant high on our list. More and more of the open-source bricks needed to build an acceptable assistant are available. And we can think of other projects those bricks could also be used for.
We need everyone’s support!
/e/ wouldn’t exist without the tremendous support of its users. We still need more support and more supporters. Technical, financial, communication…
Look at what we have achieved in less than 2 years. Just imagine what we could do with 5–10x our workforce.
Follow me on @gael_duval on Twitter, @email@example.com on Mastodon.
Credits: Gaël Duval 2019, with some edits by Russell Todd