A small company called Murena has made headlines this week thanks to its latest Android phone. Known for preloading older 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, side-mounted fingerprint sensor, 48-megapixel rear camera, and 25MP selfie shooter. More important than specs, Murena uses the privacy-focused, iOS-inspired /e/OS to power its smartphone.
It’s not an Android phone in any important way – there are no Google Play Services on board. This means you won’t have the Google Play Store and your apps or purchase history won’t follow you from other Android phones. It will be a big leap forward for many Android owners who are used to Google, but for whom a vocal minority is restless as the company has increased its control over the operating system.
An understandable desire
The need for degoogled phones comes from a good place. There are few ways to use an Android phone in 2022 without giving your data to Google. It’s the same with Apple, but Apple still hasn’t offered an alternative. Where Android offered apps for browsing the internet, a gallery app and a messaging app, and other basic necessities, Google has slowly replaced all of those with its own equivalents. There is no internet app, but you will 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 download apps from the Play Store or manually search for their APK files online, many apps require Google Play Services to function properly.
For most people, that’s not a problem. For some, there is a need for privacy and an uneasiness in trusting Google with the keys to their online life, leading them to seek smartphones without Google, but not too free of charge 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 to provide the bare minimum of Google apps and services while keeping as much data from Google as possible, and that’s what Murena uses. Associated with the Murena App Lounge, which gives access to Google applications (once connected to your Google account), it shows the limits of Google’s ambition. It is very beautiful to want to a phone without Google, but very few people are ready to I accept this.
Better companies have tried
The curiosity that surrounds Murena comes from the path she takes. Independent Android phones are already a tough sell, but an independent Android phone designed to make it more complicated to use than normal is even harder to sell. Better equipped companies with billion dollar budgets have tried and failed.
Take the example of Huawei. After being banned from accessing Google Play Services by the US government, the company has replicated everything Google once bundled with its own HarmonyOS and Huawei Mobile Services software. It spent obscene sums of money wooing developers and signed deals with apps from top regional app brands to grow its app gallery. The company’s flagship phones have also had best-in-class hardware, especially when it comes to cameras.
Despite all this, the company still hasn’t been able to recapture an ounce of its former glory in the mobile market. Google Play may be a data-hungry beast, but it’s a practice data-hungry 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 resonated inexplicably among privacy-conscious people, but it’s not one that’s doomed to commercial success. Sure, you’ll find a corner of the internet that’s willing to praise it as a concept – but with money? It’s too high a bar.
Even if Murena succeeded where the big brands failed, it is unlikely to remain the Murena that attracted early users. Instead, it will likely succumb to the inevitable cycle of independent smartphone brands and apps. Slowly adding the things its fans want, iteration by iteration, until the day you wake up and find that the Murena One phone in your hand is yet another Android phone with full Google Play support.
Ultimately, it’s not a serious concern. Like most independent smartphone brands, Murena is sure to fail. Here’s the good part for Google enthusiasts – they don’t have to win. History has shown that there will be another Murena next year, and the year after, and so on. A de-Googleized smartphone may never hit a mainstream audience, but it may spring to life every year or so to give fans an upgrade option.