/e/OS a degoogled Android – Gaël Duval – e Foundation & MURENA

Create a free, free, privacy-friendly Android OS? This is the challenge launched by Gaël Duval!

In this interview, we discuss with him the creation of the project, the structuring between company and association, the business model as well as the relationship of /e/OS with its software ecosystem. We also talk about the relationship with phone manufacturers, especially Fairphone, and the creation of their own product line, but also about the different modalities of software and hardware support.

Interview with Gaël Duval: /e/OS & Murena

Walid: Hello and welcome to Free Projects! My name is Walid Nouh. I fell into the cauldron of free software more than 20 years ago. Whether you are an experienced librist or a neophyte, come and discover with me the portraits of the women and men who make free software. Community, business models, contributions, we tell you everything! New episode: today we welcome Gaël Duval to talk about /e/OS and Murena which is the trademark associated with /e/OS.

You may know Gaël Duval as the founder of the first desktop Linux distribution called MandrakeLinux in the late 90s, early 2000s. You’ll also see that he worked on another project afterwards called Ulteo. But today we’re going to focus on the degoogled Android OS he’s been working on for a few years and it’s a great pleasure to be able to welcome Gaël on the podcast. Hello Gaël, I hope you are doing well.

Gaël: Hello, thank you for inviting me to this podcast and it’s not too bad.

Gaël Duval (source: stateofopencon)

Walid: Before we start talking about /e/OS, I’d like you to answer the traditional question of introducing yourself and telling us how you came to work in free software, and what you’ve done in free software so far.

Gaël: Basically, I’m a computer scientist, I’m a computer scientist, a bit of a hard guy, academic. So computer science is still a passion that goes back a long way, I must have had my first microphone at 10 years old, it was a world that attracted me a lot and then I spent a lot of time on computers, I chained several models in the 80s. It was a rather fertile period for computer science. I don’t know, all those who lived through it have a big memory of that time, I think, because it was swarming everywhere, it was extremely creative, a lot around the game often but not only, and with machines and systems that were not at all compatible with each other in general, But it made for a pretty exciting set, especially I think for 10-15 year old kids at the time.

That’s kind of what naturally led me to this software engineering profession. And when I got to university, I discovered two things: that there were not only microcomputers in life, there were also computers that were a little more professional, what we called workstations, and then there was the internet too. I was vaguely familiar with the Internet because I had heard a little about it, and also because I was fortunate, when I was 17, to have an English correspondent, who was in Cambridge, and his father was actually an astrophysicist. He was an astrophysics teacher and he showed me around his lab and all that, and I noticed that he was sending e-mail messages on a computer and that really struck me. I said to myself “hey, there’s something interesting”, I was a bit interested in the modem etc. And at the end I noticed that we really had computers that were much more powerful, much more serious and at the same time connected to the internet 24 hours a day. They each had their IP address globally, it wasn’t private addressing at the time.

And then, of course, as someone who was already passionate about computers, I threw myself into it body and soul. And to answer the question, how did I come to Libre? Well, a little frustration, that is to say that at the same time there was this absolutely incredible world that I discovered at university, of Unix workstations. Unix, an operating system that really struck me because I couldn’t even imagine that we could have systems that could be multitasking, multi-user, etc. And I discover this in this kind of wonderful world, a little ideal, a little hidden in the end, reserved for students of the time, researchers, all that. And next to it, in the general public, at the beginning of the 90s, what do we see developing? Windows 3, then Windows 95, on PC-compatible devices and that was really the not exciting thing for me at all. I tried to make the link between the two, actually, because I couldn’t afford to buy a machine to run Unix, obviously it was worth I don’t know how much, but it was really out of reach for a student. On the other hand, there were still these compatible PCs with Intel 386 processor, 286 and all that and at some point, totally by chance, I discovered, I don’t know exactly the year, but it must have been 94, 95, 96, I don’t know, I discovered that there would be a Unix operating system that could maybe run on large machines, PCs with 386 processors. And digging deeper, it was Linux actually, it was the beginnings of Linux. Linux was released in ’91, so maybe 2 years before, 2-3 years. And then, when I did some research, it seems to confirm that yes, maybe on my 386 which was running Windows 3, I could maybe run Linux instead, that maybe we could even run X Windows System, so the graphical interface that was running on Unix at the time. And so, here I am going to buy 50 floppy disks from FNAC, and I’m coming back, because there were already the first Linux distributions, at the time I had selected Slackware, at the time it took 50 floppy disks to install it, so I bought 50 floppy disks, and then I go back to the university and I download the whole distribution Slackware, and I run each floppy disk to save it on, and I come home with my 50 floppy disks, and then I spend the evening installing Linux and it works.

at the time I had selected Slackware, at the time it took 50 floppy disks to install it

So that was really my first steps in Linux: somewhere towards free because it’s a notion that I didn’t really know. In the early 90s and 80s, there was still a notion of sharing, of software, which was quite strong. So in a way it was quite natural for me to go for free. Then I discovered this a little bit later, the GNU project, etc. I looked at it and started to look at everything you could find on FTP servers, all the software out there, compilers, GCC, all that.

Walid: I feel like I get along when I discovered free software and I said to myself “wow, what a new world, that’s really what computer science is all about, it was really great”.

Gaël: That’s it.

Walid: So after that, you worked on Mandrake and you worked on other projects, can you tell us a few words about it?

Gaël: On Mandrake, so I was finishing my studies, in fact I was in… I was doing some kind of civil service at university, which gave me a lot of time to get interested… Finally, I actually wanted to create a Linux distribution that was both… that has the power of Linux and at the same time the ease of use that could be found on Windows for example. Also, for the general public, I thought it’s a shame that Linux is reserved for experts who have to learn the command line, which most won’t do. The idea behind Mandrake at the time was really this: is there a way to allow as many people as possible to be able to enjoy the power of Linux with modern tools and a modern user interface?

That was really it. After Mandrake, which kept me busy until 2006, I created another company and we also made free software called Ulteo. Initially, the idea was really to make an online office with it. There was a Linux distribution by the way called Ulteo Application System, which was based on Debian, and the idea was to say: with the Internet we can probably have a system where your data will be accessible anywhere whenever you want, wherever you want, with any device. So that’s why there was a Linux distribution for the PC and there was a system that allowed you to access this data in a web browser and synchronize everything. So your data from your PC was constantly syncing with the cloud and you could find your apps and data in the web browser. And that, at the beginning, the approach was quite oriented towards the end user as well and for many reasons, we pivoted towards the professional, towards B2B.

And we redeveloped the solution from a B2B perspective. The idea was to virtualize PCs, put them in the cloud, and have them accessible from anything, including a tablet, an iPad, that kind of thing. For those who know Citrix, the idea was to make a kind of cross-platform open source Citrix, because we supported Windows and Linux, which didn’t work very well commercially. We were a bit late following our first B2C approach. And that kept me busy until 2014-2015. Then I met people with whom we created an incubator and a startup accelerator, so 2015-2016-2017. We supported a lot of startups, so we saw a lot of people who had ideas, who wanted to create their own business. We’d talk to them, challenge them a little bit, then sometimes we’d help them, sometimes we’d finance them. And that’s been a really interesting moment because I’ve already met many, many people, whereas naturally computer science pushes you to… Well, yes, you have a lot of social relationships online, it’s virtual. But then I really met a lot of people, great people, super nice people, crazy projects.

It was pretty exciting. And in one of the projects, there was a company that was developing a smartphone operating system that was based on FirefoxOS. It was an attempt by the Mozilla Foundation to create a system that was a bit of a competitor to Android and all that for mobile. And we had a lot of hope in FirefoxOS, because it was totally free, it was independent. Unfortunately it didn’t work out very well, because, for reasons of strategic choices by the Mozilla Foundation, they apparently had, from what I understand, quite a few development plans in Asia. They went to Whatsapp because apparently in Asia everyone uses Whatsapp, even in 2016-2017. And when they went to Whatsapp and told them that it would be really great if we could have a version of Whatsapp for FirefoxOS, Whatsapp told them that we already have 100% of the market with iOS, Android, so we really don’t see why we would spend money to please you. Basically, that was it, as I understand it. And so they decided to shut down FirefoxOS and say there’s no path, there’s no business model. And so this company that I had met that was making a derivative of Firefox OS essentially for the African market I think with Orange, they also stopped. They were like, “Oh, they’re quitting, so let’s stop.” They stopped everything, they folded everything. It was a pretty crazy story. But I’m telling this because it’s just for the record.

For me, it allowed me to discover a world that I was less familiar with, which was the world of the smartphone in fact because I come from the world of the PC. And the world of the smartphone, it’s the same, it really fascinated me because in the end, what is a smartphone? It’s just a computer that is now very powerful, which also has a camera, a wifi connection, etc. So a lot of sensors and finally it’s a concentrate of the best we can do in computing both in terms of hardware and software. And I also found that absolutely fascinating. And the more I became interested in it, the more I said to myself “hey, there are things going on in terms of personal data in smartphones” that I didn’t really suspect. I had heard a little bit about it but the more I dug in, the more I realized that the business model of the smartphone was still really linked to the collection of personal data, especially under Android Google, where we have several megabytes of personal data that are constantly captured every day, which allow us to profile users and sell them more expensive advertising. But also on iOS finally because iOS pre-installs Google Search and gets paid handsomely by Google for it. So in the end I realized how much this wonderful world of the smartphone, it was completely rotten by its business model which was based on advertising and that finally these tools were becoming so present in our lives, collecting so much of our personal data that they were really installing a kind of very unhealthy thing, where we exchange a pseudo gratuity, which is never the case in the end, we capture all your personal data and to do with what? to sell advertising, but maybe not only. That is to say, when you have big companies on a global scale that collect all your personal data and become very intimate, because what is it? it’s your location in real time, if you have Gmail, it’s all your emails, so your email exchanges, it’s not encrypted, they read it constantly, they scan it, the apps you use, how you use them, when you use them, your internet searches, your browsing history, it’s your whole life in the end. And that’s constantly being sent to Google, Apple, etc. And when I realized that, I said to myself, there’s still a problem, because in theory we’re in a democracy, so all of this normally has safeguards. Except that you never know how it’s going to evolve, you never know how much power these private companies can take, can’t they get hacked, can’t sell themselves to powers, well, I don’t know, to dictatorships, etc. So anything is possible.

And when I realized that, I said to myself, there’s still a problem, because in theory we’re in a democracy, so all of this normally has safeguards. Except that you never know how it’s going to evolve, you never know how much power these private companies can take, can’t they get hacked, can’t sell themselves to powers, well, I don’t know, to dictatorships, etc. So anything is possible.

And they have our data. These people have our data, have our children’s data, etc. On a global scale. So for me, it was a really big problem, and I think I’m not the only one. And then I said to myself “well I don’t want to use an iPhone on the market anymore, not Android or an iPhone, I want to stop using all the Google Docs and all this stuff, all the Gmail. So what do we do?” And when I looked for alternatives, well as in the web there are 2-3 things, there are things, but on the smartphone there was nothing. FirefoxOS had just died, so there was Ubuntu Touch, but which wasn’t in very, very good shape either and there are a few projects but ultimately for me and then and potentially for my loved ones and for the general public there was no alternative to iOS or Android. And then I said to myself, as a computer scientist and entrepreneur, maybe I’ll dig into the question: can’t we do something, recreate an alternative? These are crazy ideas and I also think that if I asked myself now, I would say to myself “but no, don’t do that, it’s impossible”.

At the time, I realized quite quickly that finally all the bricks that are necessary to recreate this mobile ecosystem, both on the smartphone and the basic building blocks of the cloud, email, calendar, etc., were already available. Android is open source, we have things like Nextcloud, we have email, almost everything is available but on the other hand there is one thing missing, it’s actually the binder in the end. Because they are quite disparate bricks: they are not necessarily made to work well with each other. And that was really the beginning and the idea of /e/OS: to say how do we bring all these bricks together and recreate a product that is pleasant to use, that offers all the guarantees in terms of personal data protection and that can also be available on smartphones, the largest number of smartphones on the market.

So that’s really how the project started.

Walid: So you’re saying that you’re actually going to create a project. The first thing I’d like to ask you is where does this name i come from? I haven’t really heard an explanation so I’d like you to say a few words about it. And the second thing is from the moment you decide to create the project, what skills do you need to get started? How do you surround yourself? Where do you find the people you’re going to work with on this very first draft?

Gaël: So about the name, it’s a big story. At the beginning the project was called EELO, which is the name on which the first Kickstarter was launched, which launched the project. And then no luck, I think it’s June 2018, or maybe July, but I think it’s June 2018, I receive an email from a Dutch company asking me to stop using the brand.

At first, I thought there would be more annoyances. And then I ask a lawyer who specializes in filings, domain names, trademark names, all that. And he’s like, yes, wait, because it’s still a big company, they have a trademark that looks similar. So yes, they had registered the EELLOO trademark. So it looked like. And one thing led to another, we tried to negotiate etc, they were totally inflexible, they didn’t want to know anything. Because often you can make a cohabitation of trademarks by specializing the classes in which you file them, but they didn’t want to know anything about it. Knowing that they were in human resources software, so absolutely nothing to do with what we were doing, and at one point my lawyer told me that he had just received a letter which, in lawyer’s language, said that there was no negotiation and that they would go all the way, that is to say that they would put the budgets that would eventually be necessary to assert their right in name.

So it was really not at all a time when I could commit the financial means to defend myself on this. We just stopped and changed our name, plain and simple. And why /E/? I don’t even remember too much. That decision was made almost overnight. We had a kind of injunction with a threat that we would have to pay every day if we didn’t stop. And I don’t know, it was while talking with some friends, there’s this name that came up, a kind of derivative of EELO, and that was actually supposed to be totally provisional. The idea was to say to ourselves, we have to change our name, well, we need something for tomorrow. Okay, and then we think about it and then in a month we put a new name. Except that it lasted a lot longer.

Walid: That’s the permanent temporary.

Gaël: Finally, the name has disadvantages but it also has an advantage. That is to say that the disadvantage that it’s a bit of a weird thing, /E/, when you type it on a search engine, at first it didn’t work too much, now it’s fine.

But on the other hand, if you type in the search bar of a web browser, it will look for your /, so it’s in your file tree, and so it doesn’t work at all. But on the other hand it still has an advantage, it’s that it was so weird, you see it’s the advantage of the disadvantage, it’s that the name is so weird that finally there are quite a few people who started to say “yes this name is really crappy and everything”, and everyone was discussing it in the user community, There were those who were for it, there were those who were against it. The majority was against it, I must say, and every time I am asked, I am asked again, but when do you change your name, it’s not possible. And in the end, it still has the advantage of getting people talking and having a kind of thing that happens in terms of communication, buzz, and then finally we introduced Murena because we still needed a brand that was secure.

So now it’s deposited in the US, thing, it’s pretty well bordered. We’ve Murena.com, so that’s really the trademark. And the idea is that really now, the people who are going to discover us, they will discover the Murena online services and the Murena smartphones. And the Murena smartphone, ok it has /e/OS, that’s the name of the OS, it’s a technical thing like there’s iOS, there’s MS-DOS, some weird names. Now it’s less serious and I think that for the moment there are no plans to modify /e/OS because in the end the consequences are still very small since we have this “commercial” name called Murena. That was the question about the name and then I don’t know.

Walid: The second question was who did you surround yourself with to start this project?

Gaël: Oh yes, that’s really interesting. And by the way, I don’t know if it’s always like that in all projects, but at the beginning I started, I was really alone. That is, I was in my corner, testing stuff, installing LineageOS, modifying LineageOS, recompiling, etc. And then we launched a Kickstarter at the end of 2017, and the idea of the Kickstarter was given to me by a friend because he had already done one. He told me “your idea doesn’t look bad, but I think you have to confront it”. And besides, I didn’t have that much money to invest in it at the time, why not do a kickstarter? And in a month and a half, the two of us, we worked on this kickstarter, we created video content, we created photos, 3D animations, something a little crazy. And at the end of 2017 we released this kickstarter with the idea of finding 20,000 euros, or 25,000, I don’t know, to be able to start paying maybe a developer.

In the end, the Kickstarter made x4, in the end, because then we extended it on Indiegogo. We found nearly 100,000 euros and I received a lot of messages: great feedback from a lot of people, from many countries around the world, who thanked me for the project, who encouraged me to continue it because they themselves were already looking for alternative solutions to Android and Apple. And that, at first, I had a desire, but then it reinforced the idea that there was probably something quite important to do in the end, that I wasn’t doing it too badly.

That was really the trigger, it was this Kickstarter, which also brought a lot of visibility in terms of press. For example, I think we had to have France Inter, we had Le Point… In India, we had, I think, the biggest Indian newspaper, the equivalent of the New York Times in the US, but in India. He must have written an article about us and so there are a lot of Indian developers who wanted to work for us all at once. And all of a sudden, there’s something being created, a community based on just an idea.

That’s what’s crazy, there’s nothing, actually. There’s just a few drawings, an idea, a thing, “I want to do this, I’m going to do it like this”. And then, all of a sudden, there’s something that is created, boom, and that settles in, and that supports the project that we’re talking about and it’s a lot of connections. It makes people want to work on the project, who introduce us to other people, it potentially makes investors. It was quite an incredible moment and on the needs very quickly I had to find a developer: it sounds silly what I’m going to say, but I had no doubt about our ability to be able to transform LineageOS and de-Google it in fact, because I had seen that there was Micro-G that allowed things to be done, etc. So for me it was almost a given, I just had to find an engineer at some point, or it would be me or an engineer who was going to put things together.

That’s what’s crazy, there’s nothing, actually. There’s just a few drawings, an idea, a thing, “I want to do this, I’m going to do it like this”. And then, all of a sudden, there’s something that is created, boom, and that settles in, and that supports the project that we’re talking about and it’s a lot of connections.

On the other hand, there was one thing that was close to my heart, it was that in terms of the user interface, I found that there was a deficiency in what I was seeing. So I was like, hey, we’re going to have to recreate a user interface that’s a little bit better. And here, it’s a lot more difficult because developers who are specialized enough in Android development and who have enough sense of the user interface, either I did it wrong, but I had a hard time finding. And he was the first developer I hired, he was an Indian who made the first launcher of /e/OS. The rest happened quite naturally. There was a beautiful encounter at the very beginning, which was made totally by chance, and that’s what’s crazy and sometimes leads me to think that there may be a destiny in life. Pretty quickly I realized how sprawling Android is, it’s huge, it’s gigabytes of source code, it takes 2 hours to compile for a machine. It’s much worse than compiling a Linux kernel, by the way you recompile the modified Linux kernel for Android when you recompile an Android distribution. And at one point I said to myself “wow, between the number of phones that are going to have to be supported, which are all going to be different with specificities, all the versions that are going to follow one another, plus the different basic versions of Android, we’re going to quickly have a very big software engineering problem”.

There you have it, maintaining a Linux distribution is already quite a colossal thing. But this was power… I don’t know, at least to the power of 2, to the power of 3. And luckily, at the beginning of 2018, following the Kickstarter, I was in a place where it was a bit like the operational base of the Kickstarter, and there was someone knocking on the door. I don’t even know how he actually found me. He said, “My mom showed me an article, what you’re doing looks really good.” His mother showed him an article! So in fact her mother she read Ouest-France and in Ouest-France we had a nice article that talked about the project, that explained what we were going to do.

And so he had read that and he was like “hey, that looks really good”. And the guy was coming out of school, he had just finished his computer studies and he said “I would like to work”. So I said “ok but what do you want to do? What do you know how to do?” He tells me “I’m more of a web developer”. It seems to me that it was this: he shows his resume. I’m like “ok good web development ok why not…” and then we talk and at one point he says to me “yes also I know Git and GitLab pretty well” and then I go, “ah, interesting!”.

And finally, in fact, the guy who is always with us is Romain, our… now that he runs all the engineering from us, he was super savvy in Git and GitLab. It was kind of his passion. He was a bit of a GitLab freak. If he listens to me to this day, he won’t want to say that, but that’s kind of it. He turned out to be extremely good, extremely sharp, to set up all this infrastructure that was going to help us manage the sources, trigger the compilations, etc. Continuous integration, etc. It was, I think, I don’t know exactly, if I hadn’t had that meeting at the time, how it would have gone otherwise.

We would probably have found other solutions, but it was an accelerator in the end, because after that the project really started on a good basis. We’ve never really tinkered. From the beginning it was something with an industrial spirit, it was square: management of issues in GitLab when there are problems, tickets, etc. So project management. It was something I actually experienced, in the end I wasn’t necessarily looking for it, but it was a key element from the beginning. After that, it was more about finding developers, doing interviews, starting to finance yourself too because even 100,000 euros at the beginning goes quickly, it goes very, very quickly. And then there was also my own situation, which was a bit complicated to manage because I was in this accelerator incubator, the one we had co-founded. But at some point I quickly realized that it was taking up all my time and I couldn’t combine the two. So I had to make that transition, it was a bit complicated.

Being able to finance myself was not easy either. In 2018 I created two entities: the first was e Foundation. So the Foundation is a non-profit association. The idea of e Foundation is really to say: we don’t know what will happen, we do open source, we want it to stay that way, in any case that the core of the project remains open source. e Foundation is the association on the e.foundation domain name that offers the product in open source: this is the guarantee that whatever happens, there will always be this open source core, no one can buy it. And next to it is Murena, which was not called Murena at the time, but now it is called Murena and which is a company on which I was able to find funding. At the same time, private funding, Business Angel investors, BPIFrance grants, private funds that also help the development of projects like ours. This allowed us to recruit more and I think that, at the end of 2018, there must have already been 5-6 of us on the project.

Walid: So let me understand, is eFoundation an association under the law of 1901? Gaël: Yes, that’s right. Walid: It doesn’t have a developer? Does it have intellectual property? What is its role?

Gaël: The link is open source actually. If it wasn’t for open source, I think it would be very difficult. But there are two entities that can each contribute to the product because it’s open source. And so if you look in our GitLab, you’ll see that sometimes it’s marked Murena, sometimes it’s marked e Foundation. And the Foundation, yes, because the Foundation has resources, because we have a lot of people who donate to the project, because it’s open source, because we sometimes win projects, calls for projects, in fact we may be able to talk about it again but we won a big European project not long ago.

So we have resources: we also pay people on the Foundation, often more subcontracting, freelancers, who contribute to the project in the same way that Murana contributes to the Open Source project. That’s how it works.

Walid: So you have two work forces that come from two different entities and contribute to the project, right?

Gaël: Exactly.

Walid: So you were saying that you’re about 5-6 people, so that’s the number of people who contributed to the first version of /e/? And by the way, when will this first version be released? Gaël: The first beta version was released in October 2018.

We are at 5-6 people and also contributors, which I don’t count in the 5-6 people. That’s 5-6 full-time equivalents. We also have contributors and in particular we have a major contributor on the cloud and infrastructure part, a German, who loves the project. He is still very supportive of the project and did almost all the first infra mail, the part based on Nextcloud. And that’s it, otherwise we would never have been able to develop it. Then he handed over the reins and it was taken over by the team, a real infra team. So it’s 5-6 people plus, I don’t know how many, 5-10 external contributors, plus people contributing translations, plus people reporting bugs, testers.

It’s quite a virtuous thing, quite communal, it’s quite typical of free projects. This is pretty typical, but we’re not a purely free community project, like Debian can’t be. It’s still a bit of a hybrid between developers who are paid, salaried, and community contributions. Open source allows all of that, and I think that’s one of the beauties of open source in the end: it allows people who come from different backgrounds to work on a common project in a fairly serene way.

Walid: So in this first beta version it’s coming out, how many phones are it available on? What is the first feedback at this time, how is it going for you?

Gaël: It’s going pretty well actually, I was almost surprised that we could release a beta version in October 2018 because there was a lot of work to do. We started with LineageOS, which was already a version of Android that ran on a lot of phones. So we weren’t so limited in terms of phone models because it was already ready. On the other hand, there was still all this preliminary work of “we remove all the calls to Google including in the lower layers, the default DNS, all that stuff, we put Micro G by default, then reassemble everything, then recompile then”. So there’s still a very big effort behind it, but we were able to release, I don’t know, maybe for 20 or 30 models from the beginning. It wasn’t too much of a problem in the end, thanks to the LineageOS community, I readily admit that. So it was pretty well received at the time, because it wasn’t doing badly. And then there was this somewhat unique thing which is the synchronization between the phone and the cloud, for those who want it, because it’s always a bit of a subject… It’s not always easy. In the end, we offer you the whole ecosystem: it’s not just the phone, it’s not just the cloud, it’s a whole, phone plus cloud: you’re at home, it’s your data, we don’t touch it, all the guarantees. And it worked quite well: after the kickstarter, it was the second start of the project. There was also this whole phase, I remember now, before we released something, where there were a few people who said it was just vaporware, that nothing was going to happen, etc. But I’ve been through this before, so it didn’t stress me out too much. And then, at some point, you pull the thing out. The trick works, people are pretty happy, those who test it. That’s it, now let’s move on. We’re a real project, we exist, now we have to iterate, we have to improve things.

Walid: It’s very clever to start with a Kickstarter because if you do your Kickstarter well, and I experienced it in one of the companies: we had done a project that we had financed by Kickstarter. If you do your project well, you have access to publicity and notoriety that you couldn’t afford. And so it’s a real accelerator if it works well. So there, you have a first community that is created with users and people who will test the product. You say you’re looking for investors: what business model do you offer them to these investors?

Gaël: Investors at the time were what we call Business Angels (BAs) and in general they don’t bother you too much, especially at the beginning. They just see that something is going on, that they want to be part of it, so they don’t bother you too much about the model. And it was a good thing because I didn’t have a business model, I didn’t know. In fact, it came naturally: we asked ourselves the question, could we sell the system to phone manufacturers? But the reality is that the ecosystem of the phone world, the smartphone is totally blocked by Android or by Apple, iPhone, etc. on the other side. But they definitely want to be Google’s Android certified: it’s something that’s completely invincible. We saw right away that it would be quite complicated, at least at the beginning. On the other hand, in the community, as we already had users, people who were interested in the project, some installed the system themselves on a phone and then we had people who either didn’t have the technical skills to do it, or were afraid to do it because it’s true that when you install a system like this on a smartphone there is always a risk of bricking the phone (the block completely) if it doesn’t go well. And then other people didn’t have the time to do it either. So very quickly we received two types of requests. There were some who wanted to send us the phone and have us do the installation work that we send them, even if it meant paying a little money. The second request was, “But I’m willing to buy you a phone with /e/OS actually: what do you have, what can you do?” And so we tested both. The first one didn’t work at all.

We started receiving phones that were in very, very different states from each other. There was nothing square about them: sometimes you couldn’t even unlock them! We didn’t have the PIN, we didn’t have anything. So we had to ask again, endless exchanges… Sometimes they arrived in a lamentable state: the cracked screen, the swollen battery, we’ve seen it all. And the few phones that we flashed, that we were able to send, there was someone who must have spent two days on each phone. So two days of work for an engineer going at 20-30 euros per hour, that’s the economic model that doesn’t work at all. You can’t charge a customer 1000 euros to install an OS.

So we gave up because we saw that it wasn’t going to work. And for the time being, we prefer install parties: we encourage that. Have install parties, we’ll give you a hand, maybe we’ll send you goodies. The other one, it happened differently: in 2019 but I think it was around June, someone introduced me to Recommerce. Recommerce is a big refurbished company in Europe: they mainly refurbish iPhones and Samsungs, if I remember correctly. One of the bosses of Recommerce had heard about the project and he thought it was great. And then they invite us, in fact, they invite me to visit their premises in the south of Paris. We talk, and soon enough, I explain to them what we do. Naturally, we come to the subject of the smartphone: they have smartphones, I have an OS, well a valuable fit that worked quite well! A great story to tell. Very quickly we selected two or three models: the S7, the S8, the S9: the Samsung Galaxy which could have a fairly large volume (i.e. a few dozen per week, it’s not much). Then we organized a whole trick to flash the phones: at first they were the ones who flashed at their logistics provider, so we developed a tool that allowed us to flash the phones in the service provider’s factory. And then it started like that, so I think towards the end of the summer of 2019, something like that. We started selling refurbished smartphones on our site, quite simply. And it ended up going so well, that pretty quickly we didn’t have enough to sell actually. We had demand outstripping supply. So that’s been a great way to get started. And I think we’ll do some refurbished ones, well we’ll do a little bit more, but not on Samsungs.

But on the other hand, very quickly he asked himself the question of how we can increase the volumes: and then refurbished it didn’t work because there were weeks when we only received 5 phones when we could have sold 50. In the end, at the beginning it was the business model that prevailed, it’s almost like selling cans of peas, but except that we put super good quality peas in them, not disgusting sweet peas.

Walid: I’m going to cut you off because I find it quite funny, I myself work in the refurbished sector and you can see that the problems are the same: access to the deposit is really the key. If you don’t have access to the pool of refurbished devices, well in fact your model doesn’t work very well.

Gaël: Oh yes, you can be limited, that’s for sure. But fortunately we found solutions to solve it afterwards.

Walid: So that brings me to my next question, which is: when did you start meeting Fairphone ? And by the way, is Fairphone the first brand you work with or have there been other brands you’ve worked with before on the subject? How is this first meeting going?

Fairphone 2 with /e/OS
(source: fairphone.com)

Gaël: Well, it’s been a few years, but I think I’ve tried to get in touch with several manufacturers. There was a very big manufacturer that I won’t name, but we quickly understood it was the same: it was going to be difficult. And especially, probably, maybe in a year or two, because with boxes like that, they have cycles that are completely crazy. When you’re a start-up that’s just trying to move forward, to survive, you can’t afford that. And Fairphone is the same, it’s a kind of fate thing. That’s enough… right at the moment. We were starting to think that we really need to find a solution because we don’t have enough phones to sell. And I found myself at a workshop organized by the European Commission in Brussels, an open source workshop where there were quite a few people from all over Europe who were in the open source world, or not far from the open source world, who discussed a lot of topics. And then at lunchtime, they give you sandwiches at the European Commission, it’s really frustrating, you see, you have sandwiches…

And then I come face to face with Agnès, Agnès Crépet, who works at Fairphone and whom I only knew by name before. But I had never met him. Knowing that I had already pinged Bas (Van Abel), the founder of Fairphone, many times on LinkedIn. You know, a big kick, but it didn’t take. And there, with Agnès right away, we hit it off well. In addition, Agnès is a girl who is easy to talk to, she is very nice. And then she says something like “oh but anyway we already know you because we have Fairphone 2 users who tell us: but why on Fairphone do you put Google Android, why don’t you put /e/OS instead? it’s much more virtuous.” So I tell him “well, listen, if you want we can maybe consider stuff”. Afterwards she organized a meeting in Amsterdam and we met Eva, their CEO at the time.

Eva very professional, at first: “not sure our board will want to”, well it’s good because for me it’s square, it’s frank. You don’t have illusions, false joys. And so it took a little bit of time, but not that long. And then they tell us “well, we’re going to do a test but in a very pragmatic way, that is to say that we’re going to give you a little help so that you can port /e/OS to Fairphone 3” which was going to be released or which had just been released, I don’t know exactly. It wasn’t supported by LineageOS, and then we make a very simple deal: “we agree on a price, you buy phones from us and then you do what you want, you flash them and you sell them”. That’s how it really started. So we had a development effort: I think there were two or three months to port /e/OS to Fairphone. It’s the first time we’ve worn on a new phone. At first I was like, “Wow, are we going to make it?” And in the end it went pretty well. In June 2020, in the middle of lockdown, I started flashing with my daughter, the first Fairphone at home, which we received in a box of 50. It was pretty epic. And then pretty quickly, we put it up for sale and it worked really well. I think there’s really a couple between Fairphone hardware that’s more virtuous, that’s more durable, and an OS that’s much more respectful of personal data like /e/OS. That’s really how it started. After that, we continued with the Fairphone 4, now the Fairphone 5.

Fairephone 4 with /e/OS (source: fairphone.com)

Walid: In her interview, Agnès said that at Fairphone they sell as many Fairphones with /e/ as they do Fairphones at Orange. I was quite surprised because I naively thought that /e/ was more of an OS that was made for people who were a bit technical, who weren’t afraid to flash their phone, etc. And actually, not at all.

Gaël: No, no, not at all. That’s the goal too, that’s always been my goal. I absolutely didn’t want to make an OS reserved for people who have know-how. I really want the thing to be able to be used by anyone without any specific technical knowledge. But I’m glad Agnes said it, so I can talk about it too. It seems that we sell as many Fairphones in France as Orange. To bounce back on the end-user side, we have 2 or 3 types of users that we have identified: we have people who are very worried about the personal data side, that was kind of our heart, the heart of the thing at the beginning.

We also have a lot of people in open source who are like, “Oh yes, it’s really the mobile OS that’s really totally open source. Well, I can install whatever I want, Ubuntu Touch or a lot of other stuff. Well, on the other hand, for my friends or for my family”, and we see a lot of them in fact, at the Capitol of the Free there are people who come to tell us, “I use GrapheneOS because that’s what, but for my whole family I put /e/ on them, they’re super happy. And it works very well, there are no big problems.” For me, it’s a good satisfaction because really this ambition to want to bring a system that is truly virtuous and that can be used by as many people as possible, it works. It really works and even at home, for once, even my partner, I’ve never forced her, obviously she knows what I’m doing but I’ve never forced her. For the first time, she bought her own phone online. I told him I didn’t want to give him one, I didn’t want to deal with it, I didn’t want to do after-sales service. She bought it on her own, and one day she said, “I bought a phone from you.” “Ah ok”. And in the end it goes really well, she uses it every day, she’s a teacher, she’s not in computer science at all. My daughter who is 19 years old also uses it every day, it’s the same, she’s not in the technical world at all.

And there you have it, so for me it’s the best proof that it can work for as many people as possible and that’s cool.

Walid: So to finish on the subject of the economic model, how do you finance it now?

Gaël: How do we finance ourselves now? So we’re already making revenue, so that’s the best thing to finance ourselves, both on phones and the part we talked about a little less but it’s the cloud. We have 100,000 accounts that have been opened on murena.io, and in these 100,000 accounts obviously there are some that are more or less active. In those that are active there are people who really use it every day: and at some point they want more storage. So they take plans from us: we have plans depending on the storage available between 2 or 3 euros per month, 20 or 30 euros per month. I think it’s something like that, so that’s revenue.

So it’s the small streams that make the big rivers. Sometimes we refinance ourselves with investors, but we also have aid, BPIFrance for example, subsidies. We also have other funds, I’m thinking of funds like SIDN, it’s a Dutch fund that comes from the world of domain name sellers. They have quite a bit of money, I think, and they help projects like ours because they think it’s going in the right direction, in fact, it’s freedom of the internet, etc. We also sometimes win projects: there are plenty of calls for projects, often in groups. Europe is very supportive of open source today. They give a lot of money in subsidies to open source projects because they have understood, I think, that if we want to regain independence on the subjects of software, digital technology, etc., in the current situation, there were not so many other solutions than to switch to open source, to promote open source, the emergence of an ecosystem that is European.

So today they give away a lot of money. And that’s how we finance ourselves: in different ways, in different sources.

Walid: How many of you are now working on the project in person paid?

Gaël: There are a little more than 40, 42, 43 of us I think. A mix of employees and freelancers. It’s not necessarily very well known, but we don’t have an office. We are totally teleworking, all of us have always been teleworking, which has allowed us to get through the months of the pandemic in a fairly serene way because our activity has never stopped. And so we have people all over the place. The hard core is France obviously, we have other people in Europe and then we also have people in India, we have our designer Andros who is in Brazil. So we’re really a decentralized project. All those who are not in France we can not employees so they have service contracts in fact but it is like employees.

Walid: So let’s move on to the privacy part. What I wanted to know is how these privacy issues are going on the project. Do you have researchers who audit your code, do you have people who do security audits? Since it’s really something super important to you, how does it work?

Gaël: There’s an essential point in what we do, I think, is that we’re open source. Everything we say, all the promises we make, we can’t be told that it’s not true. So either it’s not true, but at that point, we’ll be able to correct it. That is to say, since it’s open source, anyone with a sufficient level of expertise will be able to verify that what we say, whether it’s true or not.

There’s an essential point in what we do, I think, is that we’re open source. Everything we say, all the promises we make, we can’t be told that it’s not true

And we’re betting a lot on that, especially compared to Apple. So, Apple isn’t really a competitor. Anyway, Apple is a luxury brand, it’s like comparing myself to Dior or Chanel. The reality is that around their products, they do a lot of marketing around the protection of personal data. What I want to say, because sometimes people come to us and say, “yes, but my iPhone, already your iPhone is worth 1000€, and then secondly it’s a luxury product, and then thirdly what Apple says about privacy, already if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that in the details, it’s not as simple as that, for a lot of reasons. I don’t know if it’s time to get into these topics, but they are able to detect content that won’t be appropriate, for example, even if it’s encrypted. And then actually, the end-to-end encryption that we often talk about, ultimately it’s only available on some services, but not on all of Apple’s services. And then finally the big question about Apple is either they believe or they don’t. It’s kind of like a religion, because Apple, they’re not open source at all. So unless you’re doing very thorough technical audits, you either believe them or you don’t. And we’re different, we have the source code, it’s public. You go to gitlab.e.foundation and you find all the source code of what we do, including the cloud part, and there you can have it audited as you want. Some don’t deprive themselves of it. I would like to say that we have sometimes had people who were more or less well-intentioned, who went to see and investigate what we were doing. Finally digging, it’s not pejorative, they really went to put their nose in it, dig to try to find, put their finger where it hurts. Sometimes they put their finger where it hurt. 2-3 years ago, there were some things that security experts found in /e/OS that weren’t up to scratch. Well, stuff that wasn’t working the way it should. Sometimes there are also bugs, sometimes there are regressions, it happens. But we address them, which means that once we get feedback on the thing, we check if it’s true, if it’s not true, and if it’s true, we put an R&D effort on it and then we correct it. That’s the first point. And then the second thing is that we also, fortunately, have universities that are interested in what we were doing, and in particular the University of Dublin in Ireland and the University of Edinburgh in Great Britain, which have people who work a lot on the subjects of personal data protection. They made comparisons between the OS and they looked at what was happening on the network, on calls to Google. They validated that /e/OS today is almost the only mobile operating system that by default does not send any data to Google or the manufacturer.

So, we also have that validation. We also have security audits, less on the OS and more on the cloud, which we order ourselves and pay for from security companies. There you go, so it’s a mix.

Walid: Now, I’d like us to move on to the subject of smartphones, which follows the discussion I had with Agnès on Fairphone. I’d like you to explain how and when you came up with the idea of saying that you were going to make your own smartphones? Gaël: That’s always the question of the volume of what we can supply, why not Fairphone? because Fairphone, we don’t have too many constraints on volumes. I think the more we sell, the happier they are. But I’m going to say something that’s not going to make them happy, but I’ve already told them, so it’s not going to come as a surprise: Fairphones, they’re expensive, in fact, they’re very expensive. And so, okay, there are people who can afford them, and then there are others who can’t afford them.

Personally, I still want smartphones running /e/OS to be available to as many people as possible. You can probably find a second-hand Galaxy S9 and then flash it yourself, it didn’t cost very much.

Walid: That’s exactly what I have in front of me, I have an S9 that I bought refurbished and flashed myself, but you have to know how to do it.

Gaël: Well, you have to know how to do it, it’s always the limit of the thing. For people who don’t have much money but would still like to have a smartphone with /e/OS, what is the solution today? Unfortunately, not everyone can afford a Fairphone 4 or 5, so we also needed phones that were a little more entry-level. So we were able to do it with Gigaset on a model, the GS290. Then at some point we had this opportunity to launch our own brand so the Murena One, which was released last year in May, and which is available at a much more affordable price. On the other hand, it is indeed less virtuous than the Fairphone in the sense that it is not designed to be really durable like a Fairphone. It’s a shame but hey, it’s a first version. In the future we will try to do better. But we needed, and I think that even in our strategy it’s also important, that we can have control over our own equipment, to have something that is also a bit of a reference, accessible for not too much. And then it worked pretty well even though it’s not a high-end phone, but it does the job. It has a screen that is very decent, it’s relatively fast. We did it again with the Murena 2 this year: we just finished a crowdfunding campaign with a little novelty. The Murena 2 has two small switches on the sides that allow you to physically mute the microphone, the camera, and then the other is a software switch that allows you to cut off all network access. We thought it was quite funny to tell a story about it. It’s a useful side because clearly today even if we make an OS that we control and master, we are not immune that one day there is an application that is downloaded, that has access to the microphone to the camera, malware, viruses can happen too. And so this thing is really the guarantee that if you buy the Murena 2 today, if at some point you want to be sure that it’s not going to listen to you, that it’s not going to open your camera, well you’re going to do it and you have absolute certainty, because it cuts the circuit of the camera and the microphone. And we’re in the process of launching that today. We’re in the process of shipping to the first Kickstarter backers. And there you have it, so in fact the idea is that we really have a range, both Fairphone phones on the market, which is reassuring because there are people who want to be reassured, so Fairphone reassures them, and then our own range that we are developing under our name.

Murena 2 (source: murena.com)

Walid: So if we go into a little more detail, I was wondering if you had gone through an ODM, what we call an ODM. Original Device Manufacturer, so a company that you’re going to have with your design and that’s going to have you make your phone, is that really the case for you? How did it go?

Gaël: We’re not quite there yet because when we have an ODM, we have to commit to volumes that are still too large in relation to our size. So in fact, we go through an intermediary who works with ODMs, and the intermediary finds customers who have somewhat similar or similar needs. They make a phone on certain specs and then they talk to their potential customers again and say “here we have this phone, are you interested in it, etc., how much do you want from it?” For the moment, with the Murena 1 and the 2, we work like this because the orders we make are a few thousand maximum. An ODM today, if you see it below 20,000 or 30,000 units, it won’t make you an original design, eventually it will do like our intermediary, i.e. it already has a model off the shelf, and it can rebrand it to you on 2000-3000 units.

That’s how we operate. The advantage is that you can still have access to the sources of the Android core that is tested on this hardware to develop it. So it makes it easier to develop and it allows you to have more control over things. Today, that’s how we operate.

Walid: So in the end you just need them to provide you with the material and the sources? You don’t need software support from them since in any case you’re the one who will maintain the OS, right?

Gaël: It depends. On the OS in general, it’s true: on the very lower layers, we still have software support. Sometimes there are things that we don’t have access to, or we just don’t have access to certain things. Typically a camera focus setting: we notice that on a lens it doesn’t work well. We turn to the service provider and then he works with the ODM to fix the problem and provide us with an update. So it can be very hard stuff actually. We can’t go that deep here, we’re a little bit beyond our field of expertise.

But otherwise yes, we have control over the OS, totally.

Walid: What Agnès was saying is that typically on the Fairphone 3, they hadn’t negotiated some contracts very well, which means that there are certain components on which they had problems with support when moving from versions of Android. So my question is, how long can you commit to maintaining the phone and being able to mount versions? How’s it going for you?

Gaël: That’s kind of the limit of the model. I think what we’re talking about, Agnès, is software support on firmware, especially the modem typically.

The fingerprint sensor, for example, was the example she gave. There’s two things, you’ve got the OS and then there’s all these very low-level layers. So clearly that’s the limit of our model, it’s that we, the small firmware that is used to exploit the camera, the fingerprint sensor or even the NFC module, we don’t have control over it. These are proprietary components. Unfortunately in the smartphone world, this is the norm, we have no choice, we suffer it. I hope that one day we will find a way to address this problem better, but right now we are completely stuck. After that, it depends on how you work. The problem, I think she was going to refer to, is possibly having a firmware that won’t work anymore because they have a version of Android that’s too restricted, either it’s going to work but it’s a little outdated. For now, we’ve never really seen this problem and we continue to be able to keep old phones alive, including the Fairphone 2 that they stopped supporting in April: we continue to support it. Clearly, on really old models like that, you’re going to have the OS that can be quite up-to-date, even maybe very recent, very functional, but you can have firmware in the lower layers that are going to be quite old. Potentially, there may be questions about security updates that will be old, etc. So there can be those kinds of questions.

But you still have a phone that can go on living. And for a lot of people, that’s still important. For sustainable development, this is also important. We’re trying to juggle all that. And I don’t think we were stuck, at least for now. We’ll see how it goes with the Fairphone 3. Really, you see something that stops working because the firmware is too old or that kind of thing.

Walid: I discovered /e/ myself because I installed it on a 2017 Moto E, an old phone. I flashed the phone with /e/ and I was super impressed: the phone has become super fast and I still use it as my backup phone. Last question on this subject: what has the Murena One taught you in terms of feedback?

Gaël: So the Murena One, we encountered problems, what did it teach us? Good question. Maybe on a project like this, you really shouldn’t leave anything to chance, that is to say that the thing has to be bordered, but really on all subjects. What we noticed is that on the Murena One port, when we ported /e/OS to the Murena 1 hardware, it was relatively fast, it takes a month, a month, a month and a half, it depends. And then, at some point, you have the impression that everything is working, that is to say that the phone starts, you have the screen, the touch screen it works, you have the sound, you have the Wi-Fi, the SIM it seems to work, all that.

Murena One (source: murena.com)

And then, you say to yourself it’s cool, that’s it, it’s good, it’s done. Except that, if you push your tests a little further, in depth, you will often start to encounter problems on a particular thing. For example, Bluetooth works. Oh yes, but on the other hand, I tested Bluetooth audio on AirPods audio, and it doesn’t work, the sound doesn’t work. Then you say to yourself, “oh, it’s stupid, because Bluetooth works, the thing, the connection is made, but the sound doesn’t come through, it doesn’t arrive”. In the end, I didn’t finish the job, I didn’t finish the job. You have the impression that your carrying effort is intense at the beginning and that afterwards it’s ok, but in fact no it’s not exactly that, it’s that you have a big effort to make at the beginning to make it work, then you have a kind of plateau where you will continue to develop, to improve things, to take your product to the next level. And in the end, to really go to an acceptable quality, to put a product on the market for a user who doesn’t give a shit, they just want it to work, it’s normal, there you still have a huge effort to make to finish all the little details and sometimes come back to your technical partner, the intermediary of the ODM, and tell him “well yes but there on the second lens, the focus doesn’t work well or you have to be at least 3 meters”, etc., and go into this kind of details so that in the end you are pretty sure that 99% of the features will work as expected. We were a little aware of it before, but with the Murena 1 it was really a big realization that you have to plan almost 6 months for a launch.

Walid: You can’t do unit tests on that, it’s complicated, it’s necessarily human who will have to test?

Gaël: That’s right, and then with a combinatorial explosion of possible cases because it’s a stupid thing, but sometimes you’ll have a phone that works very well with an Orange SIM and then you’ll realize that you have a customer who uses a Bouygues SIM and that, in his case, tethering doesn’t work. And then you say “oh yes anyway”. Just the fact that it’s a Bouygues SIM, the rest works, SMS works, but tethering doesn’t work. I never imagined that you could have specific cases like this on a particular operator. And we have a few of them in Germany, and each time it can be a bit long to debug, to test because you have to find the SIM, you will test it on which network, etc. So it’s a big challenge to make a Smartphone.

Walid: yes, that’s clear. The next topic that interests me is the relationships you have with other projects and with the free ecosystem in particular. What is your relationship with LineageOS, with MicroG? Do you pay them for developments? How does it work? What can you explain to us?

Gaël: It’s an ecosystem that is profoundly unstructured. So it’s wild and it depends a lot on the relationships you can have with a certain person who is in the ecosystem, that’s mostly it. LineageOS, basically we have very few relationships. So we have relationships with LineageOS developers, who sometimes come to work for us. But in fact, LineageOS is quite a community-based project, which is not really centralized. On the other hand, MicroG, much more. For the time being, we are funding Marvin Wißfeld who is the founder of MicroG.

We are funding another person from elsewhere on this project who is contributing, and a third person.

Walid: Is it about specific features or is it more about sponsorship?

Gaël: So for MicroG it’s really sponsorship. The idea is that he can work serenely on the project without worrying about going shopping tomorrow. On MicroG we don’t influence, we don’t say “hey, we need this, we need this, we need that” and then sometimes we say “it would be nice if we had this. Do you think we can do it? Does that fit your vision of the thing?” It works more like that. Yes, yes, there is a real support that has been there for at least two years, maybe a little more. Micro-G, for those who are listening, is a totally open source software brick that allows you to recreate the entire Play Services part of Google because we remove it. It’s proprietary, we remove it, we don’t want it in the OS, so we replace it with MicroG and that allows access to certain services for example geolocation etc. We use Mozilla databases but it can also be to access the push notifications that arrive in your phone: it goes through a Google service so we want to anonymize it. So we’re going through MicroG for that. But in Play Services there must be 40 or 50 APIs. It’s colossal: it’s their way of owning Android that is basically open source. And so out of those 40 or 50 APIs, there’s maybe only 10 that are implemented. These are the most visible, the most important. Most people don’t realize that there are still 30 missing that aren’t implemented. But there’s still a lot of work to be done on MicroG. That’s why we’re adding resources, we’re trying to find funding for MicroG, we’re setting up projects for them.

So there you have it. To answer your question, it’s really on a case-by-case basis, depending on the fit. Are we contributing? Yes. On Nextcloud, for example, we contribute patches, improvements, fixed bugs, stuff like that. On other projects too, we’re pushing stuff. And after that, it’s very variable. On a case-by-case basis.

Walid: I find it really interesting to understand how a society evolves in its ecosystem.

Gaël: Maybe add to that. As it happens, it hasn’t been announced yet, but I can speak to it, I think, because it’s done anyway. he Foundation has set up a project following a call for a European project. We did a tremendous amount of work to file a major application this year. This project is called Mobifree, and in this project, we invited a lot of European projects, including F-Droid. F-Droid is an open source app store. Including MicroG, there are a lot of nice open source projects that we use around mobile, so on the app store, on MicroG, on the OS, on a lot of subjects. The European Union has subsidized us to the tune of several million for this project. It’s really a subsidy and it’s the Foundation that will redistribute all this money to all these projects. So that’s what we’re also here for, to promote the open source ecosystem in Europe.

It’s also our way of contributing, of finding funding to keep it alive.

Walid: So the clock is ticking, and I’d like to talk about FairTEC. Can you tell us a bit about FairTEC? What is your role in FairTEC?

FairTEC (source: fairtech.io)

Gaël: FairTEC was initially an initiative of Fairphone, which launched the idea of joining forces to launch a joint offer. You see, Fairphone, they make phones at the hardware level. We did the OS and then you have other players. Telecoop, they offer mobile phones with a slightly different vision: the idea is not to overconsume. Their data plans, they don’t do 50 gigabytes because they tell you that maybe it’s not useful to consume 50 gigabytes. And everywhere in Europe, you also have WEetell which does a bit of the same thing, you have Commown on the smartphone rental part. We all got together, we understood that a Fairphone customer, he might want to have /e/OS on it and maybe with a Telecoop SIM you know, or WEtell in other countries, so it really started like that.

So, in terms of business, it didn’t really come to fruition. We are not yet equipped to successfully sell a set consisting of a phone, a SIM card, and possibly other accessories to a customer who would like to have it. Currently, if he wants the SIM card, he has to go to Telecoop, and if he wants the phone, he can come to us, to Fairphone or to Commown. On a business level, this did not materialize as we imagined. However, it has allowed us to communicate, to let people know that we exist, that we have a different and more virtuous vision of the smartphone and telephony market. It also allowed us to get to know each other better and work together. I think we’re all kind of on the same page. At the moment, we are thinking about how to evolve FairTEC to revitalize it and perhaps make it a little more concrete.

Walid: The last topic is about the challenges ahead for /e/ and for Murena. This is a very broad question. What are the challenges you see in the coming years?

This is a very broad question. Sorry.

Gaël: Obviously, you can imagine that on an OS like /e/OS, we have projects in all directions. Unfortunately, a bit too much, so we try to be focused. That’s also why sometimes there are frustrations, because you have small topics: for example, default applications. We should be able to uninstall them. It’s been 3-4 years that we’ve been saying and agreeing, but in fact, a small, quote-unquote, feature like that behind a development that is colossal. So far, we haven’t done that. I think one day we’re going to do it, and right now, it’s in the roadmap. But sometimes, you have other priorities. When you have a big bug, when you have a big thing to integrate, a new version of Android to support, it’s always a question. You always have priorities, you have to make choices and manage resources. That’s the side that can be a little frustrating.

So, for me, the future is really about continuing to progress. We also have topics on end-to-end encryption that we want to bring to the cloud. We have a lot of topics about tracker detection because we haven’t talked about it too much, but we have a module in /e/OS that allows you to detect trackers, well, trackers in French, and cut them off. It’s a trick that works well but today works in a fairly static way, that is to say that you have to feed it regularly with identified lists of trackers that you have known. And that’s something we’d like to make a lot more dynamic. And so we have a thesis in artificial intelligence that will arrive this year, a PhD student who is getting into it because we have leads, things that have been done in other fields, ad detection, adblocker, all that, that we should be able to set up on the OS, but with a lot of challenges. And research is quite exciting. For us, in terms of strategy, what is important is to grow. I’m convinced that the world is changing, there’s a lot of things going on, sometimes it’s a bit scary, but I think there are also a lot of people, a lot of people who want to make more virtuous choices in their lives. They often prefer to eat organic, maybe have an electric car rather than a diesel car, because you know you’re having an impact, because you want to have a healthier life and have more virtuous values. We’re really committed to that, on the protection of personal data, but also on sustainability because the OS we’re developing, it allows phones to live longer and just a small parenthesis, but 80% of the carbon impact of a smartphone is on its construction, its marketing and only 20% on its use. So if you make it live three times longer over its lifetime, you divide, you mitigate its impact over three times as long, it’s very interesting.

There you go. But so we are totally convinced that in Europe at least, but also probably in the United States, something is happening, that the market is asking for something else. After that, we have to get bigger, and in order to get bigger, we also need to be able to make ourselves better known. So, marketing, communication. We have to start really thinking about it a lot more than we have done in the past, and then finance ourselves because there are times when we have to invest to grow, to develop products, to make ourselves known. So, a lot of challenges, but that’s the nature of a project like ours and it’s quite exciting, it motivates you to get up in the morning.

Walid: I think there’s still work to be done, for example on the professional profile. I find that it’s not necessarily very clear and that there is really work to be done, especially when you have a professional account which is a Google account, it’s a bit complicated.

I wanted to point out that I thought your release rhythm was very cool, which was basically a month, instead of something like that. And then I wanted to know a little bit how you build the roadmap?

Gaël: We do one release per month, at least in general, unless there are any mishaps along the way, but because we have security updates to push into the product. And yes, I totally agree with you. On the pro side, in 2024, this will be the year when we will start an extension to B2B. Today, we were really focused on the personal user. And here, we’re going to move more towards B2B offers that we’re going to derive, both in the cloud and in smartphone fleet management. So there you have it, all these topics we’re going to start really working on them.

Walid: Open source smartphone fleet management, we talk about it a little bit with Florent from Commown in his episode, there’s not much, there’s everything to do. We’ve swept the subject quite a bit. Before I leave you, I’m going to give you the floor for an op-ed. You can say whatever you want to tell us.

Gaël: I just want to say, come and take a look at what we do. I think that’s also what you were saying earlier, which is that in this smartphone market, which is dominated by giants, there are now commercial practices with the aim of selling you a smartphone as quickly as possible. In other words, your smartphone is going to live an average of 2.7 years, apparently, if the statistics are to be believed. After that, it is considered obsolete, and it is encouraged to buy a new one. We are not in that perspective at all. It is believed that a smartphone should, on the contrary, live as long as possible. As you said with your Motorola, I’ve also noticed that there are phones that are 6, 7 or even 8 years old. Take an old phone, running Android, that hasn’t been maintained for years: it’s completely outdated, apps don’t work anymore, it’s slow because of unnecessary apps, etc. You install /e/OS instead and you end up with a phone that’s as good as the first day, if not almost as fast.

Take an old phone, running Android, that hasn’t been maintained for years: it’s completely outdated, apps don’t work anymore, it’s slow because of unnecessary apps, etc. You install /e/OS instead and you end up with a phone that’s as good as the first day, if not almost as fast.

And then you realize that the smartphone industry is selling you something completely fake. When you are told to buy the new phone because it’s so much better, so much faster, that’s kind of true, but not that much. Okay, there’s going to be a little bit more RAM, but apps, now, if you don’t have at least 3GB of RAM, it might start to get complicated. For the past 2-3 years, the specs have changed very little, so there’s no reason why phones can’t last much longer. What I want to say is, take an interest in what we do. You’ll see, it’s a much more serene world with phones that are there to do most of the uses we need: take a picture, send an email, send text messages, call, receive calls, use a few apps, and everything goes super well. You won’t be bothered by ads everywhere, viruses, and you won’t hand over your personal data to Google.

Walid: That’s the last word. First of all, I would like to thank you, as a very satisfied user of /e/OS, for all your work.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us in depth. For listeners, if you enjoyed it, feel free to spin this episode. You can leave comments, especially on Mastodon, where I reply quite regularly, by email or also on LinkedIn. You can find all the contact details on the projet-libre.org website. See you soon, stay well and Gaël, I hope to see you next time.

Gaël: Thank you.

This episode is taped on December 29, 2023.

Links about /e/OS, Murena and Gaël Duval


This podcast is published under the double license Art Libre 1.3 or later – CC BY-SA 2.0 or later.

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