Besides the open source operating system kernel of Android, Google also takes care of dozens of non-open source components. However, these have a profound influence on the functionality of a typical Android smartphone. So if you rip Android away from the Google part, as is soon to happen with Huawei devices, the user experience changes noticeably. But it also conceals a great opportunity.
With examples, I would like to show you how Android feels without Google and that many Google components can be replaced. Other components and services, on the other hand, would have to be newly developed by Huawei.
To the section
- Android without Google: What remains
- Google's Android: These components are missing
- The test system: What can be replaced and how?
- The bottom line
Common to all Android-based devices, whether with or without Google components, is the open source core from the Android Open Source Project. This represents a unified interface between hardware and software and makes Android apps run on Android smartphones.
A slightly outdated infographic from the Fairphone Open Project indicates (in green) the open source bits of an Android system. Blue components are usually supplied by third-party suppliers as closed source packages. The red parts are the said Google services; also closed source and deeply anchored in the system.
Pure AOSP-Android cannot be easily installed on a smartphone. The source code must first be compiled for the hardware of the target device and equipped with the appropriate modem components. Fortunately, the network is full of volunteers who do this for us and provide corresponding builds under names like "Lineage OS" for free. More about that later.
Over the years, Google has severely undermined the core of the once openly conceived Android. Important functions such as site services, the notification system and theft protection are not or only rudimentarily available in AOSP. This is annoying because some apps crash or do not start at all without those services.
Also, features like Google Cast or a connection to a WearOS watch is no longer possible without Google components. In addition, important apps such as Maps (also for displaying maps in third-party apps) or a source of apps such as the Play Store is missing, which is much more obvious. I will show you in the next section how both can be replaced.
First of all, it should be mentioned here that the lack of Google apps also has positive effects. An AOSP smartphone also lacks all of Google's tracking and advertising services. From a data protection point of view, Android without Google is a significant gain in privacy.
This time, a OnePlus 5 was used for my new test of Android without Google. I set it up it with Lineage OS for microG, which last ran with Android Pie on a patch from May 2019.
The operating system is available for almost 200 smartphones and combines the above-mentioned builds with the microG package and the F-Droid app source. The installation is done via TWRP (external link) after unlocking the bootloader on the smartphone. All this can be done with the smartphones of most manufacturers, but you'll probably lose your warranty.
First, I open the Play Store replacement F-Droid, which - without logging in - updates its package source. Then I have several thousand apps to choose from, which is considerably less than on the Play Store. The advantage is that they are all free of charge, open source, and free of advertising.
Many apps not available there can be downloaded in the Yalp Store. There are closed-source services such as Slack, Skype, ProtonMail and many others. The Yalp Store is like a kind of like a back door in the Play Store and uses a fake account. Unfortunately, only free apps can be downloaded. For example, I would have had to buy Threema for a complete test outside of the Play Store on the Threema website and download it there.
If Huawei is no longer allowed to pre-install the Play Store, you can count on an official manufacturer app store in addition to the alternatives mentioned above. Huawei has been running an app store in China for quite some time now and there is also a rumor that it will be coming to Europe.
One problem is maintenance-free app updates in the background. While the Play Store was allowed to install and update apps in the background without asking questions thanks to its privileges, this is not possible with the independent app sources. The modified F-Droid version of the tested Lineage OS version allows maintenance-free updates, but not the Yalp Store. It will ask you again for each app if you want to install it. And if an app is available in more than one of your app stores, there may even be conflicts with updates.
Android is pleasingly fast without Google Services. And thanks to the pre-configured F-Droid and after setting up the Yalp store, I installed most of the apps I use within minutes. First, a table for a quick overview:
Apps available in Android without Google
|App||Alternative / Source|
|Google Calendar||Calendar, Nextcloud|
|Google Device Manager||Cerberus|
|DB Navigator||Yalp Store|
|BVG Info||Yalp Store|
|Google Maps||MAPS.ME, OsmAnd; F-Droid or HERE WeGo, Yalp Store|
|Gmail||Protonmail, Yalp Store|
|ING Online Banking||Yalp Store|
|Telegram||F-Droid variant without GMS|
|DriveNow / MultiCity / Free2Move||Yalp Store|
My biggest concerns were with notification-intensive apps like Telegram or location-dependent apps like DriveNow and BVG Fahrinfo (for public transport). F-Droid variants of the apps are usually not dependent on Google. Yalp store applications, on the other hand, can avoid the replacement interfaces of the microG framework without additional configuration. I'm thrilled.
Even though almost all apps launch, they don't always work perfectly. For example, ING Banking displays an error message when I want to activate push notifications. Apparently, there are difficulties with the cloud messaging implementation of microG declared as "fully functional". Similar errors are reported by users on GitHub.
The most important shortcoming for me is the lack of synchronization and backup of emails, calendar events, contacts, photos and the like. There are many things you have to take care of yourself on Android without Google. While I was able to circumvent many of these functions with a NextCloud server that I operated myself, the synchronization app DAVx5 and ProtonMail, a more casual, hands-off user lacks a simpler alternative.
Huawei would have to offer a kind of migration assistant that would take over Google services such as calendars, contacts, emails and, most importantly, the theft protection of the smartphone on Huawei servers. The manufacturer has already used several of these services for its Chinese customers who cannot use Google in their country for some other reason. Models sold in Europe show signs of corresponding Huawei cloud services, which, however, played a subordinate role. Maybe that'll change soon.
Smart home becomes easiest with Amazon and Alexa
If you use Android without Google, even with the microG framework, Google Cast devices are invisible to your smartphone. In general, it is easier using Amazon's Alexa to manage your smart home setup. And if you want to completely renounce the controversial data companies, perhaps a third-party solution like Athom Homey is an alternative for you.
Find my smartphone
Theft protection without Google is also tricky. Cerberus serves as a good alternative to the otherwise existing device manager, even if you have to pay for the service once. Then you can theoretically control your smartphone remotely via SMS or the Internet, retrieve its last location, take selfies of a thief and send them to a specified email address, lock the device, delete data and more.
Huawei could also offer such a service, as Samsung has already done with FindMyMobile. Personally, I would also be happy about a self-hosted alternative that I can ideally set up as a NextCloud app. A related project called Open DeviceManager is currently dead. The FindMyPhone F-Droid app answers an SMS or email with the GPS coordinates of your smartphone.
The dependence of the Android ecosystem on Google and its services is evident on two levels, but both of these problems can be solved. LineageOS for microG proves that existing Play Store apps can run without adaptation despite the lack of Google services. Your dependence on Google services can be overcome.
Basic features such as theft protection, synchronizing appointments, contacts or emails, and backups of photos present Google dropouts with a greater challenge. You need to look for alternatives, whether through third-party vendors or through your own server.
Huawei could, however, make a good start on all these issues. It only has to provide the infrastructure for millions of customers in the short term. And they must also be willing to migrate their data from a data giant in the USA to a company no doubt in China.