Free-licensed and secure phones

You Say Goodbye, and I Say eelo

© Lead Image © innovari,

© Lead Image © innovari,

Article from Issue 208/2018

With the eelo project, Gaël Duval has big plans for a free-licensed phone, with an accompanying app store and online services.

Suddenly, efforts to produce secure, free-licensed phones are everywhere. One of the most likely to succeed is eelo [1], a project that aims not only for a free phone, but the app store and online services to accompany it. The project's Kickstarter campaign [2] reached its original goal of EUR25,000 (~$30,000) in less than a week, and, as I write with nine days left in the campaign, it has collected over twice that amount with EUR69,000 and has a strong chance of reaching EUR100,000 (~$119,000).

One reason why eelo has a high chance of success is that it is being headed by Gaël Duval [3] (Figure 1). Long-time free software users may remember Duval as the founder of Mandrake (later Mandriva, and the ancestor of Mageia, PCLinuxOS, and OpenMandriva), the distribution that, around the turn of the millennium, led in Linux usability. Duval left Mandrake Software in 2006 and has since been a serial entrepreneur, involved in such startups as Ulteo [4], as well, he says, as investing "in a dozen startups last year." Although some of Duval's ventures have had only modest success, they should give him a familiarity with business that is rare among those attempting to develop open hardware.

Figure 1: Gaël Duval, the founder of the Mandrake distribution, is now creating the ambitious eelo project.

For Duval, eelo is a highly personal project. As he explains on his blog [5], in 2017, with over a decade as a dedicated iPhone and Mac OS user, "I realized that I had become lazy and that my data privacy had vanished. Not only wasn't I using Linux anymore as my main operating system, but I was also using a proprietary OS on my smartphone. And I was using Google more and more. Search of course, but also Google Mail, Google Drive, and Google Docs. And Google Maps." Without meaning to, he had entered "voluntary servitude," and lost his privacy, with information leaking from all sorts of sources (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Eelo's illustration of data leaks on a modern smartphone.

Duval decided that the way "to reconquer my privacy" was to create a nonprofit that would start to build an alternative. He named the project "eelo" as a reference to moray eels, which he describes as "fish that can hide in the sea" [6]. He also began work with Hathibelagal Ashraff, an Indian developer for mobile devices, and Rhandros Dembicky, a Brazilian interface designer, to produce a proof of concept study and to develop a roadmap.

Eventually, Duval intends to create a nonprofit foundation that, over the next three years, will develop both a free phone as well as an ecosystem of services to support it. This emphasis on services is in marked contrast to the efforts of Purism's Librem 5 phone [7], which is apparently being developed in the hopes that the combination of a Linux distribution's package software repository and high-end security will be attractive enough that users will not miss the selection of apps offered by Google Play or iOS' App Store. As Duval says, "I'm not sure that we are exactly in the same market as Purism."

Instead, Duval has said several times that "I want something with more privacy for Mum and Dad." By implication, that means something "attractively designed" and easy to use, so that any level of user can have security. Moreover, according to the crowdfunding page, at least in the beginning, eelo's offering will be – as much as possible – open source, meaning that initially eelo may not meet Purism's high standards for avoiding proprietary tools. However, Duval adds that "this will improve over time, step by step. Releasing the perfect thing from the beginning would be a utopia."

Building an Infrastructure

Eelo's first step is to build an operating system based on LineageOS [8], the fork of custom CyanogenMod ROM [9], one of the most comprehensive efforts to provide a free version of Android. However, while Duval describes the core of LineageOS as "usable and performing well," he suggests that "the design is not very attractive and there are tons of micro-details that can be showstoppers for a regular user. [...] Unless you are a geek, LineageOS is not realistically usable if you don't want Google Inside" [10]. Launchers, icons, and notifications on the desktop and a control center are all areas that Duval intends to improve or add.

Before the campaign began, Duval's team had already managed to get a proof-of-concept version of the eelo operating system running on one phone model, the LeEco Le2, and, as I write, was awaiting the arrival of another model for testing.

The campaign page also includes a link to Duval's Twitter feed, so that would-be users can request that the project work to support other phones [11]. However, in the interest of time, this support means dealing with the proprietary drivers found in the average smartphone, which can be difficult to reverse engineer. In the short term, eelo will likely have to continue using proprietary firmware, although Duval does talk about creating some means of auditing this firmware to ensure that it is not leaking data secretly. Another alternative may be to partner with a project such as Fairphone [12], which is also attempting to produce a free phone and faces a similar limitation.

Other issues concern the support ecosystem for eelo's operating system. For example, the project is considering replacing Google Play with app stores such as F-Droid [13] or APKPure [14], two app stores that specialize in free-licensed apps – and, in the long run, perhaps, with its own app store. Another alternative is to use Yalp Store [15], which acts as an anonymous proxy for Google Play users. Similarly, Google services may be replaced by microG [16], and Google's SafetyNet Attestation API, which checks whether a device complies with Google's environment with Magisk [17], as part of the infrastructure that will help eelo to run apps for unrooted phones. Search engines like DuckDuckGo or Qwant may also be used as replacements for Google, while multimedia services like Facebook will be left for users to decide to install. In other cases, such as Gmail, eelo may have to build its own services.

The first round of such decisions and developments is scheduled for the project's first year, with the first results due in the second quarter of 2018. In the second year, eelo plans to add its own web services where necessary and an eelo operating system for computers, as well as setting up the project's nonprofit foundation. According to the roadmap, the third year will see the continued development of these efforts, as well as an eelo smartphone (Figure 3) and digital assistant.

Figure 3: What the eelo phone may look like.

Duval blogs, "I want eelo to be a nonprofit project 'in the public interest'. I think operating systems and web services should be a common resource: as I explained a few year ago [...] this is infrastructure, like phone networks, rail tracks, roads. [...] Nonprofit doesn't mean nothing will be for sale. Probably some eelo smartphone will be for sale, and some premium services will be available for corporates. But profit won't be the first focus of eelo. Eelo will be for users first, for everyone who cares about their data privacy."

Creating a New Market

Of all the attempts to build a free phone to date, eelo is by far the most ambitious and comprehensive. While Duval says that he does not expect that an eelo smartphone will be "something people will find at Walmart," the project is clearly being planned with the possibility of being more than a niche service in mind. "I think that we can partner with some phone makers, because some of them will be interested that we do not have Google preinstalled," says Duval. "And of course, there is a huge market in corporations who want to control their data better."

How far eelo will go towards its goals remains to be seen. However, so far, eelo is receiving considerable attention, both from the media and potential supporters. "I'm very surprised, actually," says Duval, "because most of the time I hear, 'People don't care.' My point of view is that people do care when they know."

At the very least, eelo has helped people to start talking. And who knows? When secure and free-licensed phones finally arrive, eelo just might be a major leader in a field it has helped to create.

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