Fairphone and e Foundation are teaming up and taking the rare step of selling a non-Google Android phone to the public. The Fairphone 3, a midrange smartphone originally released in September 2019, can now come pre-loaded with the /e/ OS, a fork of Android that replaces the usual suite of Google apps and services with open source options and /e/’s cloud services. The goal of the two companies is to produce a “privacy conscious and sustainable phone.” (It’s “https://arstechnica.com/e/ OS” but, for some reason, only “e Foundation.”)
The Fairphone 3 was originally released in August 2019 for €450 ($493). If you buy the pre-loaded /e/ version from /e/’s website, the phone is €480 ($525). The Fairphone 3 build of /e/ is freely available no matter where you buy the phone, but if you buy it from /e/, you’re presumably financially supporting your phone’s OS development.
Fairphone was founded in 2013 with the goal of building sustainable smartphones that are environmentally friendly and fair to the people who make them. The phone is designed to be repairable by favoring screws instead of glue and having major components broken out into modules that are easily replaceable. The Fairphone 2 and 3 are the only devices with a 10-out-of-10 repairability score from iFixit. Fairphone even sells spare parts directly on its website: a new screen is €90 euros, a new battery is €30, and a replacement USB-C port is €20. The company also advocates for worker’s welfare in the smartphone supply chain, with a focus on sourcing non-conflict minerals and a paying workers a living wage. The Fairphone 3 is still made in China, but it’s assembled by Arima, which is working with Fairphone to improve workers’ conditions.
Fairphone is based in Amsterdam, and the phone is only sold in Europe. It’s a midrange device, with a 5.65-inch, 2160×1080 LCD, a Snapdragon 632 SoC, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and 3000mAh battery. There’s a USB-C port, headphone jack, microSD slot, NFC, a rear fingerprint scanner, and Wi-Fi that goes up to 802.11ac.
The d/e/al with /e/
The new OS option, the oddly named (and impossible to Google) /e/ OS, was founded by Gaël Duval, the creator of Mandrake Linux. /e/ seems a lot like a real Linux distribution, in that it first tries to gather existing open source projects into a cohesive OS, then does whatever work is needed to fill in the gaps that exist. /e/ is based on Lineage OS, the Android community’s foundational open source operating system. Lineage (which was built out of the ashes of CyanogenMod) takes Google’s open source Android repo (AOSP) and cleans it up for individual devices, making sure all the hardware works on each device while adding a few extra features.
LineageOS can optionally be paired with the Google apps, making it work like a consumer Android phone. Without the Google apps, Lineage is just a basic husk of an operating system, so /e/ takes LineageOS and turns it into a viable non-Google OS by adding many of the features you lose by removing the Google apps. There’s an /e/ app store, along with built-in apps for search, email, contacts, photos, the camera, SMS, and more. Most of these applications are forks of open source projects, but critically, /e/ is stepping in with some cloud services like an account system and cloud storage for email, contacts, documents, and calendar events. There’s even an option for self-hosted cloud services.
Building non-Google Android is about more than just replacing Google’s apps, though. Google’s “Play Services” APIs are built into many third-party apps, and you’ll need a replacement for all of those APIs so third-party apps will work. These are things like Google’s cloud push messaging system, Google’s fused location provider (Android’s de facto location API), and the Google Maps API. For that, /e/ is integrating MicroG, an open source project that hijacks these Google API calls and can redirect them to other services. This is the second time now that we’ve seen a company plan to ship MicroG to consumers (Essential went out of business before it had the chance), and that’s a little concerning when MicroG’s own Github wiki page describes the project as “alpha-grade software and not yet ready for production use.”
A major challenge for anyone trying to fork Android is keeping up with both the breakneck pace of Google’s Android development and the impossible amount of devices out there. Any users of /e/ should know they’ll most likely be on an old version of Android for the majority of the time. The LineageOS builds that /e/ is based on only hit Android 10 earlier this month, something like seven months after Google’s final release. Naturally, /e/ is still on Android 9, a 20-month-old OS.
The device support for /e/ is also limited, with support seemingly down to whatever device individual maintainers feel like supporting. To further complicate matters, the “Downloads” page lists plenty of devices that have been seemingly abandoned and only have access to older builds, going as far back as /e/ versions of Android 7. If you want the current version of the OS, you have even more limited choices. For instance, the hacker-friendly Google Pixel line isn’t really supported. The newest supported phone is the Pixel 2 XL, but that only has the Android 8 version of /e/. For the current version, only the Pixel 1 XL is supported with Android 9 /e/, and there are no builds for anything newer than that. The only flagship Samsung phone with the current version of the OS is the Galaxy S8, but even that’s labeled a “beta.” Newer phones, like the Galaxy S9, only have older Android 8 builds of /e/. The best supported brand seems to be OnePlus, which has Android 9 /e/ builds for the 7 Pro, 7, 6T, and 6.
That hot mess of device support is not your problem if you’re buying a Fairphone 3, though. This device gives /e/ its first new-in-box hardware to focus on, and it has the benefit of aligning with the values the company is aiming for. Previously, it only sold refurbished Samsung phones pre-loaded with its software.
The Fairphone 3 with /e/ preloaded ships May 6.
Listing image by /e/