A small company called Murena broke into the news this week thansk to its latest Android phone release. Known for preloading old Android phones with a custom version of Android, this Murena One phone is the company’s first phone. A typical $400 phone, it’s a flat-screen slab with solid specs including a MediaTek processor, a side-mounted fingerprint sensor, a 48-megapixel rear camera, and a 25MP selfie shooter. More important than the specs, Murena is using the privacy-focused, iOS-inspired /e/OS to power its smartphone.
It’s not an Android phone in one important way — there are no Google Play Services on board. This means that you won’t have the Google Play Store, and your apps or buying history won’t trail you from other Android phones. It’ll be a big leap for many Android owners who are used to Google, but one that a vocal minority has been agitating for as the company has increased its control over the operating system.
An understandable urge
The need for de-Googled phones comes from a good place. There are few ways to use an Android phone in 2022 without giving over your data to Google. It’s the same with Apple, but Apple always offered no alternative. Where Android used to offer apps for browsing the internet, a gallery app, and a messages app, and other basic necessities, Google has slowly replaced all those with its own equivalents. There’s no internet app, but you’ll find Google Chrome, no gallery but Google Photos, no mp3 player but YouTube Music. It’s hard to avoid Google on an Android phone even if you choose to install non-Google apps. If and when you do download apps from the Play Store or manually find their APKs online, many apps require Google Play Services to function properly.
For most people, this is a nonissue. For some, there’s a need for privacy and a discomfort with handing Google the keys to their online life that drives a search for Google-free smartphones — but not too free an experience. A smartphone that doesn’t support Uber, Google Maps, or Spotify would be less than ideal.
With third-party and independent Android operating systems, developers have created frameworks like /e/OS. It’s something that can be loaded in to provide the bare minimum of Google apps and services while keeping as much data as possible from Google, and it’s this that Murena is using. Paired with the Murena App Lounge, which provides access to Google apps (once you sign in to your Google account), it shows the limitations of the de-Google ambition. It’s all well and good to want a Google-less phone, but very few people are willing to accept it.
Better companies have tried
The curiosity surrounding Murena comes from the path it is taking. Independent Android phones are already hard sells, but an indie Android phone crafted to make using it more complicated than normal is an even harder sell. Better-equipped companies with billion-dollar budgets have tried and failed.
Take the example of Huawei. After being banished from access to Google Play Services by the U.S. government, the company replicated all Google once provided with its own HarmonyOS software and Huawei Mobile Services. It spent obscene amounts of cash to woo developers and signed deals with prominent regional app brand apps to build out its App Gallery. The company’s flagship phones have also had best-in-class hardware, especially with regard to cameras.
Despite all that, the company has still not been able to regain a shred of its former glory in the mobile market. Google Play may be a data-guzzling beast, but it’s a convenient data guzzling beast — and convenience almost always wins out.
A phone that can’t succeed even if it succeeds
The concept of an Android phone without Google has always been inexplicably resonating among the privacy-conscious, but it is not one that’s bound for commercial success. Sure, you’ll find a corner of the internet that’s quite ready to praise it as a concept — but with money? That’s a bar too high.
Even if Murena were to show success where bigger brands have failed, it’s unlikely to remain the Murena that attracted early adopters. Instead, it’ll likely succumb to the inevitable cycle of indie smartphone brands and apps. Adding things its fans want slowly, iteration by iteration, until one day you wake up and discover that Murena One phone in your hand is yet another Android phone with full Google Play Support.
Ultimately, that is not a serious concern. Like most independent smartphone brands, Murena will all but certainly fail. Here’s the good part for de-Google enthusiasts — they don’t have to win. History has shown there’ll be another Murena next year, and the year after that, and so on. A de-Googled smartphone can never hit mass appeal — but it can sputter to life every year or so to give fans an upgrade option.