Posted in Technology

Review: privacy-respecting /e/OS software on a phone

The /e/OS operating system for mobile phones has been built on the open source code of Android. The core mission of /e/OS is to provide software that respects users’ privacy, while maintaining compatibility with the vast selection of Android apps. It is still early days for /e/OS, but can it already deliver its ambitious goal? Here is a review.

Two mobile device operating systems dominate the smartphone market: Apple iOS (15.2% global market share) and Android (84.8%) by Google. Both are user-friendly, highly functional, and extensible with additional applications. The downside is that both software products systematically collect user’s personal data independent of system settings. In addition, many downloaded apps tend to collect even more user data.

Fortunately, privacy and security minded people have more choices. Multiple projects are working to port various flavors of Linux to smartphones, whereas other projects have chosen to take the open source core software of Android and build on that. E.Foundation caught my eye because its mission is to bring a private and secure phone to ordinary people. Absolutely no hacking or technical tweaking required from users.

gigaset phone powered by e.os software (main menu)

The e.foundation team has been working on the new operating system for a couple of years. The software is based on open source Android without Google components. It means that a similar set of built-in apps and cloud services as Google has for Android must be developed so that ordinary users can power on a new /e/OS phone, and feel that they know what they are doing. Users should have plenty of features out-of-the-box and they should be able to download the missing Android apps from an app store. This is exactly what the e.foundation development team has done.

I purchased a new phone that is powered by /e/OS in early 2021, and have been using it as my primary phone ever since. It is also possible to download the operating system from e.foundation web site and flash it to a phone yourself. More than 130 phone models have been tested to run /e/OS. I will provide a high level review of the /e/OS software that was preinstalled on my phone. As I’m writing this, the /e/OS version on my phone is 0.15, based on Android 10.

Setting up a new /e/OS phone

About a year ago, I happened to visit a neighbor who had just bought a new Samsung Android phone. She wanted to power it on and set it up. I followed what she was doing, and only interfered if she asked me to. She didn’t have a clue what to answer to all the questions during the setup process. The default option was her solid choice. In the end, the phone worked, and she even recovered her contacts and photos from the Google cloud (data that Google had sucked from her previous phone without her realizing it).

The setup process wasn’t quite as smooth with my new /e/OS phone. Questions were asked that I didn’t understand. I had to access a search engine to research what they meant. Nonetheless, I got the new phone running without too much effort.

Finding your way around an /e/OS phone

e/ OS settings screen
Settings.

It is really easy to find what you want after the phone has been set up. Android user interface is familiar to most phone users, and no one won’t get lost in /e/OS.

For many users, the first destination is to check the Settings. I think it is organized more clearly than on other operating systems. I really like the default Camera, Mail and Maps apps. The email is the same one as on my old Android phone, but the other two key apps that I use a lot are excellent new discoveries.

Downloading additional apps to an /e/OS phone

app store privacy rating screen on /e/os
App store privacy rating.

Next, most people want to install additional applications that they need for banking, messaging, social media, and for other purposes. /e/OS features Apps program that is the default app store for the system. I haven’t found information where the apps are sourced and how they are selected, but is has an excellent feature: the store rates apps for privacy.

When you have discovered an app that you want from the app store, you can check its privacy rating, and decide if you still want to download it. Remarkable. This feature has made me change my mind a few times already about what to download and what to skip.

A somewhat confusing thing with applications is that all Android apps can’t be found in the included app store. In my case, banking applications were missing. Instructions on the e.foundation web site point to an app called Aurora Store. It is a middleman program that lets you download apps from the Google store without having to login to Google. It worked, and I downloaded my banking apps. At the time of writing this I wanted to take a screen shot of it, but Aurora Store fails, informing “Failed to build API”. I don’t worry about that error alone too much because I expect it will be fixed. I do worry, however, that this concept of multiple stores that have different apps can be confusing to my neighbors. How my banking apps are updated?

The conclusion

The team at e.foundation has achieved a lot during the relatively short period they have been working on the /e/OS. In the world of technology, not all challenges are caused by technical issues, but licensing, agreements, intellectual property rights, and commercial issues are just as important. Getting rid of Google ecosystem, yet retaining compatibility with Android apps is a big challenge.

Still, the /e/OS software is ready for daily use already now. I have encountered a few rough edges and teething problems, but I believe they can be and are being fixed. Development of the software is active and I have already received one or two over-the-air updates to my phone.

The bottom line:

  1. Does the /e/OS fulfill its mission and provide an easy to use phone for an average joe?
    Yes. With time, I expect the setup process to get smoother, and hopefully the app store confusion is solved as well.
  2. Does the /e/OS protect its users’ privacy from data collection ?
    Yes, I believe so. I haven’t made an effort to research this myself, but the /e/ community is very active and informs of potential data leaks on the support board. The privacy/security rating system of apps on the app store is an excellent feature.
  3. Would I recommend /e/OS to my neighbors?
    Yes. I can recommend it to my Samsung Android neighbor when she wants a new phone, assuming that the key feature for average users – Android application compatibility – is delivered.
camera app on /e/ operating system
Camera app.
app store privacy rating in eos
App store: Detailed permissions requested by an app.
trackers discovered by /e/ app store in an app
App store: Trackers discovered by app store.

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