Android without Google Play Services: The No Google Experiment

I’ve previously wrote about scrapping reliance on Google services by changing my app store, overhauling core services and using alternatives to apps. These all lowered the amount of data I send to Google and the chances of robots ever recognizing me during the next robotic invasion 🤖.

However, like I said at the end of that article, I never really ditched Google; I still used Android Messages, Google Pay and Google Photos. That is still a lot of services that are sending my data to their servers.

I decided to take the opportunity of the end of my phone contract and the start of a new year not just to completely scrap those, but to also ditch Google Play Services completely.

What could go wrong?

The technical jargon

The first hurdle was probably the one where I had the most anxiety passing through. Before this, I never really had much knowledge into installing ROM’s, custom recoveries and rooting. I had enough customization and power from my phone, why would I ever need to!

Unfortunately, The only way I could completely remove Google Services was to tweak my phone, so I took a breather, went on YouTube found a tutorial on how to root my phone.

Everything was going well; I unlocked my bootloader, I flashed TWRP and started the process of rooting, that’s when everything started going downhill.

The startup symbol looped and looped for 20 minutes straight – I anxiously started going onto as many articles and resources as I could find to try and fix my boot-looping mess of a phone. None of them helped, so I went for my last case scenario: Discord.

I was lucky, In one of my nerdy chat servers, there was someone who knew how to root. It was a simple fix, I just wiped everything off my phone.

Instead of re-flashing Oxygen OS, the OnePlus skin on top of Android, I decided to use my bets on an unofficial flavor of Android… Lineage OS.

Lineage OS + MicroG

Okay, so can I just mention how much I love Lineage OS?

It’s open source and made by contributors from around the world and has some useful privacy features, as well as customization. This either could be because of the ROM or the lack of Google Services but my phone feels so much faster now.

The ROM I installed wasn’t an official build though, I installed a fork called LineageOS for MicroG; MicroG is really just Google Play Services without the ‘Google’ in, it allows me to run apps that use Google Services with ways to limit the amount of data that gets sent through.

Most of the implementation works flawlessly, however I’ve had some trouble with Google SafetyNet which has blocked me from using some apps – I tried using Magisk Hide to fix this, but I had no luck.

Most apps also use Google Cloud Messages to send their notifications through instead of going directly to the phone, so I didn’t get as many frequent notifications.

I wish apps didn’t use so many proprietary Google API’s, MicroG wouldn’t of been needed and this project would probably be less of a pain.

My Replacements

I’m gonna clarify that my phone isn’t completely a open source, independent phone as my difficulties with Google SafetyNet and Cloud Messages has shown. I still use some proprietary software as it’s completely impossible to replace all apps, but for those I replaced, as follows:

YouTube is replaced with NewPipe, a version of the YouTube app that has no ads, tracking, uses less battery and has the ability to download videos.

Google Play Store is replaced with F-Droid mainly, however when I have to get Google Play apps I use Aurora Store to download them.

Google Chrome is replaced with Fennec F-Droid, a more open source version of Firefox for Android.

Google Keyboard is replaced with Flesky. While you might say it’s not open source, it processes everything you type on device and not through servers. If you really want an open source keyboard then use AnySoftKeyboard from F-Droid

Google Contacts/Calendar replaced with DAVx5 which connects with my locally hosted NextCloud server. If you wanna know more about it then please read my last article.

Google Maps was replaced with Magic Earth. It’s not an Open Source alternative, but it uses OpenStreetMaps data.

Everything else like the Mail app have been replaced with its Lineage OS counterparts.

Should you do it?

Are you an Android user that’s experienced and knows your custom recoveries to your custom ROM’s? Yes.

But if you’re not, This experiment isn’t for you. You could be risking bricking your entire phone and I have found the entire experience quite stressful.

When the European Commission released a report on Google’s influence on the entire operating system, which is supposed to be open source, and how it was anti-competitive, I didn’t buy it.

Now that I’ve actually done this experiment, it’s really shocking on how much Google has a grip on Android. Essential services are reliant on Google Play Services such as Emergency Location Services and Google SafetyNet has stopped me from using certain apps.

Why should we be forced into giving data to big tech companies that mine our data? We shouldn’t have to go through so many steps to do this, especially in times where we’re increasingly reliant on phones and technology in our every day lives to the point you could call them surveillance devices.

You can agree with me or disagree with me, but no one would ever give their address, their location, their phone number, their sexuality, their nudes and their bank information with a heavy-suited business man in the street for the sake of ‘personalisation’ of services, so why should we let big advertising companies have this information?

We paid for these devices. We should have the control.

A little shout out to my friend who's been doing some of my Snapchat Streaks for me (I can't access it because of Google SafetyNet, so I have to use my iPad to do it). Thanks 😊

De-Googling my Android

“Everytime you create a new account, whenever you accept those dialogs that are asking for cookies, whenever you make a search online. You are being watched and companies from big to small are trying to build a big picture about who you are, your interests, your age and so much more.”

That was a quote from my GCSE English Speaking Language talk, It was about Digital Privacy and how big tech giants harnest our data to understand who we are; I talked about Cambridge Analytica, their affiliations with the Donald Trump campaign and why we should have more regulation on how tech companies use data and secure it. The outcome went well, I got a distinction and my teacher thinks I should get a job in cybersecurity.

And then I looked at my phone, the same phone I carry around everywhere, the same phone that I check my school timetable with, the same phone that sees all my text messages and the same phone that I take embarrasing photos of me and my friends and family with.

So from then on, I decided to break up with Big Tech.

App Store

F-Droid App Store

F-Droid is a repository of FOSS (Free and Open Source) software. It’s probably the most needed app if you’re going to start dropping Google Services. Through F-Droid you can find alternatives to apps you currently use; Most of them aren’t connected to a company and are created by developers.

Inside F-Droid, there’s another App Store called the Yalp Store which allows you to download Google Play Store apk’s in case you need anything that isn’t already there.

Google Drive/Google Calendar/Google Keep

Raspberry Pi 4

My sister’s boyfriend and the host of this site, Matt Burman, gave me a Raspberry Pi 4 for my birthday. After a bit of tinkering, I started using it as a NextCloud server and I managed to sync all my files, calendar, contacts and notes inside of it.

I use DAVx⁵ to sync it all onto my phone and so far I haven’t had any problems, however my instance is still locally hosted so if I’m away from my house I’ll not be able to upload and sync – I’m currently in the process of making it avaliable through a domain so I can use it.

NextCloud and NextCloud Notes have it’s own official applications but for my calendar; I use Etar, it’s open source and it has a really nice material UI.

This is better than using Google Services as there is no direct monthly fee and I can expand it without having to pay more in monthly costs, as well, it’s all open source and it has a whole range of plugins that can make it a joy to use.

Browser

Kiwi Browser Logo

Kiwi Browser is my go to browser. It’s a modified version and open source version of Chromium that supports Chrome Extensions and is really fast. It’s developed by Arnaud Granal and has a huge community behind it.

It also has a dark mode and an AMOLED mode, as well as a in-built ad blocker.

The browser was named Kiwi because Arnaud met a bird which caused him to drop his phone, he bought a cheap Android phone as a replacement and it was so slow, he couldn’t browse the web on it, this was his solution.

If you prefer something that’s on F-Droid, Fennec F-Droid is a another great choice. It’s a version of Firefox stripped of some of it’s proprietary code; Like the official Firefox app, you can use add-ons and sync it to your Firefox Account.

Email

K-9!?! 😲

To replace the Gmail app on my phone, I started using K-9 Mail. It’s a no-thrills email app that supports IMAP, a dark theme, signatures and mostly everything you’d really need.

K-9 doesn’t have many alternatives that are going for it; Other clients I’ve used are either clunky or have missing features. That’s why I stick with it’s pre-lollipop outdated interface, It just works!

For my email hosting provider, I replaced G-Suite with Zoho Mail. It has enterprise quality security, it encrypts emails and it’s cheaper.

Other Apps

  • To replace Google News; I started using Feeder. It’s an open source RSS feed reader that has features like categories and exporting feeds
  • To replace Google Maps; I use OsmAnd. It’s a Open Street Maps viewer with turn by turn directions, I still use Google Maps as I’m still not quite sure about it’s reliablity.
  • To replace the YouTube app; I use NewPipe. It’s a open source YouTube client that has history, playlists, pop out video and background play. It’s a bit weird to get used to at first but it works really well and it consumes less battery.

Exceptions

Completely De-Googling is impossible at the moment. I still use Google Photos for my photos, I still use Google Pay to pay for my lunch, I still use Android Messages because of RCS, I still use Google Duo with my family and my sister gave me a Google Home so there’s no way I’d be able to let go overnight.

I will one day completely strap free from Google’s shackles, downloading all my data and letting go the accounts I ‘sign in with Google’ in, but until then, Google will still keep my information in their servers for them to experiment with and sell like a lab rat.