Now Is the Time to Start Planning for the Post-Android World

We need a free software mobile operating system. Is it eelo?

Remember Windows? It was an operating system that was quite popular in the old days of computing. However, its global market share has been in decline for some time, and last year, the Age of Windows ended, and the Age of Android began.

Android—and thus Linux—is now everywhere. We take it for granted that Android is used on more than two billion devices, which come in just about every form factor—smartphones, tablets, wearables, Internet of Things, in-car systems and so on. Now, in the Open Source world, we just assume that Android always will hold around 90% of the smartphone sector, whatever the brand name on the device, and that we always will live in an Android world.

Except—we won't. Just as Windows took over from DOS, and Android took over from Windows, something will take over from Android. Some might say "yes, but not yet". While Android goes from strength to strength, and Apple is content to make huge profits from its smaller, tightly controlled market, there's no reason for Android to lose its dominance. After all, there are no obvious challengers and no obvious need for something new.

However, what if the key event in the decline and fall of Android has already taken place, but was something quite different from what we were expecting? Perhaps it won't be a frontal attack by another platform, but more of a subtle fracture deep within the Android ecosystem, caused by some external shock. Something like this, perhaps:

Today, the Commission has decided to fine Google 4.34 billion euros for breaching EU antitrust rules. Google has engaged in illegal practices to cement its dominant market position in internet search. It must put an effective end to this conduct within 90 days or face penalty payments.

What's striking is not so much the monetary aspect, impressive though that is, but the following: "our decision stops Google from controlling which search and browser apps manufacturers can pre-install on Android devices, or which Android operating system they can adopt."

Whether or not you agree with the EU's decision, and assuming that it isn't overturned on appeal, that demand for Google to loosen its control over the Android ecosystem is significant, and it may be the beginning of the end of the Android era as we know it. Even if it isn't, the EU fine is a timely reminder that the moment will, inevitably, come. Google clearly knows that, which is probably why it is developing Fuchsia.

Fuchsia will be open source, made up of a mix of BSD 3 clause, MIT and Apache 2.0 licensed code, but not based on Linux. Significantly, the Fuchsia "book" readme file begins: "Fuchsia is not Linux". If Fuchsia turns into a major project that appears on smartphones and elsewhere, the implications for the Linux community are clearly huge. The Open Source world therefore needs to start thinking about what that will mean for the community—and to start planning for it.

Smartphone manufacturers currently dependent on Android already have back-up plans of varying degrees of seriousness. For example, the Chinese tech giant Huawei, now the number two smartphone manufacturer after Samsung, is developing its own alternative, although there are no details yet. Samsung still has Tizen, for what it's worth. The question is, what kind of insurance policy should the Open Source world be putting in place against the day when Google moves off Android?

Alongside all the previous (failed) attempts to come up with a viable free software smartphone operating system, and Purism's promising Librem 5 system, there's a new option that's well worth a look.It comes from Gaël Duval, who probably is best known as the creator of the Mandrake GNU/Linux distribution in 1998. Based on Red Hat, Mandrake set great store by ease of use, and it was the first of a new generation of distros aimed at ordinary users, which have become commonplace today. His new project is the free software mobile operating system called eelo. Duval says he chose the name in part "because eels are small fish that can hide into the sea. That's perfect for my quest of more privacy". Addressing the woeful lack of privacy that is a by-product of using today's smartphones is a major aim of the project:

Last year, I decided to leave Apple and Google: I want to free myself from the smartphone duopoly; I want to regain control over my data privacy; I want to protect my freedom.

At first, I thought I would just fork Android, add a better design, remove any Google stuff, select a few privacy-compliant web services and add them to the system.

A little more than 6 months later, I realize that we're building something really, really bigger than I had expected. This is made possible by the tremendous support I'm getting from many people around the world, and by a growing community of eelo contributors.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Duval has set up a foundation called /e/ to support eelo's development. Its website contains details about the mobile operating system roadmap, the applications that are planned and the team behind the project. There's also a "manifesto", which is nothing if not ambitious.

It's still the early days for eelo. However, what sets it apart from previous open-source mobile operating system projects—and what makes it worthy of support by the coding community—is the emphasis on privacy. In this respect, it can be seen as a representative phenomenon of the GDPR-suffused world we now inhabit:

eelo is committed to providing desirable mobile phones and web-services that respect the user's data privacy. The eelo OS will not send a user's data to eelo, such as his location, his contacts, his agenda, in an exploitable manner. eelo users will be able to use eelo cloud services with the guarantee that their data will be kept private and stored as securely as possible.

That's only an aspiration at the moment, but it's a laudable one. For too long, the Open Source world has been complicit with Google in undermining the privacy and freedom of Android users. It's understandable—Android has helped make Linux the most widely used operating system in the world, overthrowing Windows. Fighting against Google in the early days of smartphones, as it tried to establish Android as an alternative to completely proprietary offerings, would have been quixotic. But the time has come to assert free software's underlying ethical foundation and to move on from an Android world to something better—in all senses. Whether that will be Duval's eelo or something else is a matter for the Open Source community to debate. But it's a debate that we need to have now, as a choice, before it becomes a necessity.

Glyn Moody has been writing about the internet since 1994, and about free software since 1995. In 1997, he wrote the first mainstream feature about GNU/Linux and free software, which appeared in Wired. In 2001, his book Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution was published. Since then, he has written widely about free software and digital rights. He has a blog, and he is active on social media: @glynmoody on Twitter.

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