comscore
News

eelo: In conversation with Gaël Duval, creator of the Google-less Android project

Duval, along with an Indian Android developer, is creating a new user interface for the mobile operating system.

gael_duval

Gaël Duval, creator of the eelo project. Image: Gael Duval


Highlights

  • Gaël Duval has been an iPhone user since 2007.

  • He wants to create a mobile operating system that protects user data.

  • If his Kickstarter campaign is successful, eelo could release in the first half of 2018.

Today the mobile world is driven by two primary operating systems – iOS and Android. At a very fundamental level, the difference between the two is in their approach between keeping things open or closed in terms of consumer choice. While iOS has largely been closed, it’s managed to garner an active and passionate user base due to its emphasis and focus on user experience.

Google’s Android operating system, on the other hand, has largely been focusing on the freedom to choose, tweak and tinker around with your device given the sheer amount of choice it offers. However, a growing segment of users believe that Android is too dependent on Google, and that there ought to be a new path in the mobile ecosystem. A path that thrives on the free and open source philosophy, and a path that is not dependent on Google to the extent of Android.

We wrote about eelo last week, and it seems like a noble idea. I got into a conversation with its creator, Gaël Duval. Here are the excerpts.

eelo is an interesting name. Does it have a story to it?

Well, eelo doesn’t mean anything. I derived the name from “morray eels”, which are fish that can hide in the sea. I believe that’s an interesting start as the project aims to provide more privacy to user data. “eelo” got naturally derived from this, and the logo has a stylized “e” that represents a morray eel.

Could you tell us a bit more about the eelo project?

Recently, I realized that I was increasingly using Apple and Google systems. The problem I had with that was their need of user’s private data to fuel their direct or indirect businesses. Besides, they’re not open source. That’s when I began to look for alternatives. I could return to Linux on my computer, but since my use of mobile phones are high, I also needed a good alternative for smartphones.

That’s when I discovered a fork of Android called LineageOS. I realized it was already very usable. However, I found the user interface quite annoying, and it’s difficult to use without Google, unless you manually modify it.

The same was the case with web services such as email, online office suites, cloud storage and search. There are many tools available. But unless you take a lot of time to address each part and learn, it’s not straightforward at all to use for an average user.

So I decided that if I could find the good pieces and put them together for me, I could probably do the same for Mum, Dad, and children. And it probably would even be interesting for one or two other people on the planet since we are more than 7 billion humans.

Fortunately I met a great Android developer – who is Indian – and we started to redesign a new user interface for the mobile operating system.

Since I got a lot of feedback from people who read my early posts about the project on “Hackernoon”, I decided to officially launch a new project “eelo” to support this initiative, and start a crowdfunding campaign to support early developments.

Tell us a bit about the team at eelo.

We are three people on the product (two developers plus a designer). Besides this, there are about a dozen people who are close to us. They’re all entrepreneurs in the tech industry, and are supporting me a lot. And we also now have an emerging community of contributors! People who offer to test eelo on their devices when it will be available, those who offer to translate content, and many people who suggest ideas. It’s all very exciting.

Currently, I’m focusing on the Kickstarter campaign because the more successful it is, the more people we can hire to accelerate the eelo project.

How do you plan to ensure critical mass for eelo?

I could hardly ensure anything. We’re currently proposing. Let’s see if there’s adoption. The good news is that we don’t plan to develop a lot of software on our own – we mostly would take existing stuff, put pieces together, fix issues and provide something that is well integrated and “ready to use”. It will be sustainable by nature.

Talking about free and open source software, why did projects such as Firefox OS, Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch, Tizen and Plasma Mobile not take off?

That’s a key question, because it’s the main difference between eelo and most other “privacy-enabled” initiatives. I’ve been very interested in those initiatives. Actually I started to think about my project the first time in 2015, because I liked a lot of what FirefoxOS was doing. Unfortunately they stopped, and I think the reason is the same as for other initiatives – many of them cannot run mainstream apps.

We want to offer more privacy to user’s data, but I strongly believe that you cannot do that in one day, and you cannot force people. So many of them will continue to use their preferred applications on eelo, which we will make available through an alternative application repository. And we will improve step-by-step. And at least the core of eelo will have no Google at all. So by default, this will be a lot more “privacy-compliant” than any other Android system.

Given a choice between Apple, the platform you’ve used for the longest time, and Google, what are your thoughts on the approach of the two mobile operating systems?

Probably I shouldn’t say that, but I’m quite a fan of iOS. Maybe that’s because I’ve been an iPhone user since summer 2007, and I really felt empowered by the product. I believe they’re doing a good job on the user interface and experience. At the same time, selling $1,000 smartphones is not reasonable in my opinion. Purchasing this is more an act of snobism now. You don’t get an improved use for the price.

And when using Apple I feel “jailed” into its environment. You really better have an iPhone, a Mac, an iPad and an Apple Watch. Then the same for everyone at home, and your friends. And Apple is monitoring all your activity permanently. Welcome to Gattaca!

I don’t like Google’s Android a lot because of its user interface. And of course because I think that they’re still worse than Apple with user data since this is exactly what is fueling its business model.

On the other hand, the fact that core Android is open source and that it can be installed on many various brands of device makes the environment interesting. Furthermore, the environment greatly integrates with all web services (office, cloud, email, etc) and is straightforward.

To summarize, my reference in term of user interface for the mobile is iOS. In term of global environment, Google is probably addressing customer needs better. eelo will be the best of all that, with respect of user’s data privacy.

How dependent on Lineage OS are you?

Since we’re in our early days, we’re totally dependent on LineageOS. Over time, we will see if we can partner, or if we need to fork.

Similar to Cyanogen, would you have a OEM variant of eelo for manufacturers?

Sure.

How was your transition from using an iPhone for 10 years, to creating a fork of Android?

I will tell you the truth: eelo is not ready yet, and I’m still using an iPhone along with my eelo testing devices.
That’s the reason why I called the project “Leaving Apple and Google: my eelo odyssey”. It’s not a one month development.

Free and open source is a strong philosophy. Is going Google-free a compelling reason for adopting a new variant of Android?

For some people yes, for others no. But we need to tell users about privacy concerns. When they know what happens with their data, most of the time they say “ouch!” Is it acceptable that one giant company can concentrate all data from users over the planet? Is it acceptable that their data can be spied by the NSA or other intelligence agencies?

People have to know about those facts and we will open a dedicated page at eelo.io. Even if eelo is used by only 0.01 percent of the 2.3 billion smartphones users out there, it would mean 23 million users.

What are your concerns with Google and Google-enabled services within Android?

It’s sending all your data to Google all the time, including your contacts, email and location details. This is fueling its business, which is selling advertising. People think Google is free. But in reality, they pay for it when they go to the supermarket, or buy food or a car.

Since Google is a giant company, they’re able to track hundreds of millions of people permanently on the Earth.
I personally think that it’s not acceptable – who would accept that from his own country?

What’s the philosophy around releasing a launcher, control center and notification system ahead of the OS? Will eelo be modular at the end?

eelo will not be something that’s aimed at geeks or James Bonds of the world. eelo will succeed when non-expert people want to have it and use it.

Will we see eelo ROM ports for smartphones that are supported by LineageOS?

Sure.

Will it be easy as unlocking the smartphone’s bootloader and flashing eelo ROM from recovery?

It depends on the device. Some are super-easy, others are more complicated. We’d also like to partner with some hardware maker to release eelo smartphones.

Does the eelo ROM support root access? Which in case, security will be an issue

That’s a controversial question (smiles). One thing we can do is to release a “developer” ROM with full root access and no limitation – that will be useful for testers and developers. A “more restrictive ROM” for regular users would ensure a good level of security.

When will the source code be made available for developers to port the ROM?

The first eelo beta ROM should be available by mid-2018. If the kickstarter campaign does 500 percent of its initial target, that’ll be sooner.

  • Published Date: January 5, 2018 11:08 AM IST