Startup Spotlight: /e/ wants to “de-Google” your smartphone
Android is by far the world’s most popular operating system for smartphones. As of May, the operating system held a commanding 72.72% market share of the global smartphone industry, with Apple’s iOS clocking in at just over 26%, and the third place runner up, Samsung, clinging to a measly 0.4%.
The story the numbers tell is a clear one: the entire smartphone industry is wholly within the grip of a software duopoly that even the world’s largest electronics manufacturer (Samsung) and Huawei (which recently launched its own Android competitor, HarmonyOS) seem totally incapable of breaking.
Much of the criticism leveled at Android, a largely open-source operating system that can be found on just about every non-Apple smartphone in the world, is its connection to its parent company, Google, and the subsequent implications for its users’ data privacy.
As smartphones have become an increasingly essential part of our daily lives, the rate at which Google (through both Android and iOS devices) passively collects our data, which is then sold to the highest bidder, has also spiked dramatically.
Research conducted in 2018 by Digital Content Next found that, while you are actively using your Android smartphone, Google passively collects data pertaining to your online and offline activities as much as 90 times an hour - amounting to roughly 11.46MB every single day. iOS users aren’t much better off. Despite Apple’s ongoing rhetoric surrounding privacy, Google manages to collect data from iPhone users as much as 51 times an hour - for a grand total of around 5.7MB per day.
It’s worth noting that Apple does a better job of preventing Google from harvesting user data while their phones are inactive. Google only harvests data 0.7 times per hour when an iPhone is inactive. By contrast, Google helps itself to Android user data as much as 40 times an hour, even when the user’s device is inactive.
“Over the last ten years, mobile phone evolution has made them our daily companions, within reach at all times. But they have also quietly transformed into surveillance devices, sharing our personal data with the highest bidder or with government agencies to predict and influence our actions.” - the /e/ Foundation
Privacy concerned users can obviously opt for a device that’s devoid of Google services through the Android Open Source Project. However, it’s kind of like living in a tent deep within the woods to get off the grid: probably fine for some rugged individuals, but kind of an obstacle to living a normal everyday life, and an experience that most people who rely on everything from Google Calendar to Drive storage would probably find deeply unpleasant. And then there’s the fact that - at least according to Jordan Palmer, a journalist over at Tom’s Guide - “even in the open source version of Android, there are still remnants of Google’s influence.”
This brings us to the /e/ Foundation, an open source coding organisation that wants to de-Google your smartphone. Dedicated to building “mobile operating systems, apps and code that put users’ privacy first before profit,” the /e/ Foundation claims to be able to deliver a fully de-Googled experience, from operating system to applications which, “Combined with online services, such as a search engine, email, storage and other online tools, it creates a unique environment privacy-in privacy-out.”
Everything(aAnd I mean everything) Google has been liposuctioned out of the /e/OS, including some really foundational behind-the-scenes stuff which means that the OS uses different Network Time Protocol and DNS servers. In the place of anything and everything remotely Google, third party solutions from Mozilla, microG, and several other sources. It’s all as open-sourced as possible.
The foundation has been getting some real attention recently - particularly as consumers have become more conscious about the degree to which corporations have eroded individual data privacy over the past decade. In March, it was reported that /e/ has plans to start selling pre-loaded phones (refurbished Samsung Galaxy S9’s to be specific - as well as the Fairphone 3 and 3+) set up to use /e/OS right out of the box in the US market. So far, /e/'s operations have been wholly confined to the European market.
Now, /e/ is a non-profit foundation that’s spent the past few years releasing things for free (or as cheaply as possible), so they’re definitely not a startup in the traditional sense. However, as their operating system has matured, and a groundswell of consumer and media attention has grown around them, I sincerely hope we see the /e/ Foundation take a greater and greater role in both ensuring individual data privacy in the smartphone age, and presenting consumers with a viable alternative to the smartphone OS duopoly.
What’s next for a post-smartphone LG?
South Korean mega-conglomerate LG made its dramatic exit from the smartphone business at the beginning of April 2021. While the company’s weird, wacky, and kind of wonderful smartphone designs never managed to create the kind of commercial success the company was clearly after, LG’s exit from the business raises one important question: What’s next?
As a brand, LG is thoroughly baked into the fabric of Korean life. The company’s home electronics and white goods are popular overseas, but its presence in Korea is on a whole other level of ubiquitous. Every air conditioner in my 20 storey apartment building is made by LG. The corporation owns one South Korea’s three major telecom carriers, and a subsidiary of LG’s Chem division, LG Energy, is having enough success making car batteries for everyone from Tesla and General Motors to Renault that it filed for what promises to be one of the year’s biggest IPOs this week. My toothpaste is made by LG.
People who worry about LG’s exit from the smartphone business clearly don’t understand just how big this company is. All the closure of its mobile device business means is that this titanic organisation is funneling wasted resources into something more profitable.
When it announced the closure of its smartphone business in April, despite ongoing concerns about what to do with its overseas factory assets, LG said that the staff working in its mobile business would be rotated away to other areas. So, where have they gone, and what are they doing now?
Is LG’s Smartphone Division Getting Reimagined as a Software Company?
There’s a good chance that a number of LG’s smartphone division’s employees have wound up in the company’s software development arm. On Thursday, LG unveiled a new mobile app designed to improve pedestrian safety (if you had to dodge delivery drivers watching netflix on their phones while driving at 30 miles per hour down the pavement on your way to shops everyday, you’d agree with me that this is a welcome piece of news in its own right) which is just the latest development in a flurry of app-based activity at the firm.
Last week, LG also announced that FOSSLight (Free and Open Source Software Light) system, its open source software management tool, will be made available free of charge to third party developers. TechRadar also reported that, according to several LG analysts, the company is looking to “bolster its presence in the software community.”
The new pedestrian safety app, called Soft V2X, is deployed in vehicles, and can warn drivers of potential collision risks between them and nearby pedestrians by relying on ultra-fast data exchange between the app, the vehicle, and surrounding devices. Basically, if the app detects it’s getting really close to a pedestrian’s smartphone really, really fast, then it will intervene with an alert. Presumably it can pause Season One of Bridgerton to offer a polite warning to look at the road.