How to run Android without Google
If you are dependent on Google Apps or if you need to regularly pull email and social networking status updates, then this article is not for you. If however you would like to benefit from improved battery life, the satisfaction of causing less global warming, and maybe some more peace of mind, well... read on.
The Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is as the name sugests an open source project, as it is built on the GNU/Linux kernel and the code is freely available online. However, an Android device has plenty of Google bits that are closed source and deeply integrated into the OS. If an Android device maker wants to remove the proprietary Google bits, it can no longer be part of the Android Alliance. (Amazon and Yandex have already done this but they added their own closed source bits.) For an ordinary phone user though, it will be quite a greasy pole. But, you give it a try anyway.
Change Google settings
Most people breeze through the initial Google settings without waiting to read what is shown on the screen. Why? What could go wrong? Essentially, Google says that they will save your Wi-Fi network password on their servers and prevent your phone from ever going to sleep again - ever! Whether you are using the phone or not...
Default Android settings allow Google to upload your passwords and app data (even non-Google apps) to its servers. It also prevents Wi-Fi radio chips from ever getting switched off.
Microsoft has made it impossible to turn off data collection in Windows 10 but they do not have to worry about their devices (PCs mostly) being connected to mobile data. Android devices have a multitude of connectivity options. Fear of class action suits has prevented Google from performing data collection with mobile data. So, Google provides options to turn these settings off. Well then, turn them off. Google has redefined Airplane Mode. It turns the mobile data (telco) off but Wi-Fi can remain on.
Note how many times the word "even" is used to explain Google's oxymoronic counter-intuitive settings. Your Android phone will scan for Wi-Fi networks "even" when you switch off the wireless chip. Why? Because, Android is designed to upload your location to Google servers "even" when no app is running.
If you believe in "Man-made Climate Change," then it must also be easy to imagine that each one of your Android smartphones is costing at least one polar bear its icy home. If you don't believer that, then at least guilt-trip your friends with that perturbing thought.
Apart from general Google Apps settings, there are other settings within each Google app that help keep tabs on you. For example, Chrome browser will automatically transmit each web address that you visit to Google servers. Of course, for malware and fraud prevention. Well... I built my own browser. You however can use the Firefox for Android app, as it is a totally free and open source software (FOSS).
Disable apps if you can't remove them
The app settings screen has several columns -
Downloaded, Running, All and
Disabled. Many Google apps and manufacturer bloatware hide in the
All column. Take some time to study or research these apps. If you know what you are doing, you can stop and disable many of them permanently. Be sure not to disable important system apps or anything you might need.
Android phones are loaded with unwanted and spywarish Google apps, most of which are installed as system apps, which are impossible to uninstall by users. Most of them are hidden away in an obscure "All" column.
Root to remove unwanted apps
Most device manufacturers install online shopping and social networking apps as system apps. They start automatically, run all the time and waste your battery and data connection. In India, they are less afraid of lawsuits and cause data usage whether you are on Wi-Fi or mobile data. Such system apps cannot be disabled. You can get rid of them only by rooting the device. Rooting voids warranty and is an option only for the brave.
If the device cannot be rooted, then use a task killer or a startup manager app to disable unwanted apps regularly, on-demand or at startup.
Use alternative apps and app stores
You do not need the Gmail app to get e-mail. Use Gmail's Web interface to enable POP or IMAP access in the settings. Then, configure Gmail POP/IMAP access in the stock e-mail app and use it to send/receive email. Other providers such as Microsoft (Outlook) and Yahoo also provide free POP/IMAP access.
F-Droid is a good alternative to Google Play. F-Droid provides downloads of FOSS (Free and Open-Source Software) apps. It has plenty of apps for every kind of purpose.
F-Droid is a safe placed to download apps, as the source code for all their apps are public and compiled (built) into installable APK files by F-Droid.org.
App stores from Amazon, Yandex and Opera are alternatives to Google Play. Unfortunately, the Amazon store app is even more resource-heavy than Google Play. These store apps have their own data collection methods. The only minor difference is that their pipes are not connected to Google datacenters.
You will have to enable the "Unknown sources" option in the settings for side-loading apps. When I have to configure a new device, I install all the apps (mostly games) that I need from Google Play and then I disable Google Play and all its associated apps. I then use Total Commander (a file manager app) to copy APK installer files of the apps to an SD card backup store. If ever I need to install those apps again, I can get them from the backup.
There are many sites that provide free downloads of APK files. Installing apps from these sources is fraught with danger. AndroidPolice.com maintains a site at www.apkmirror.com where the latest APK builds are uploaded for testing. XDA Forums is a site famous for its Android developer community. Many APK files that are not available on app stores can be downloaded from here. Always read the reviews before installing any APK.
Racoon is Google Play desktop client. It is a Java software that you run on a Linux/Windows/Mac computer. It does not break Google's ToC. You have to login to a valid Google account to download the APK files. The APK files can then be manually installed on your phones. There is no need to have Google Play on the device.
IMHO, F-Droid is the best alternative to all the rest.
Use apps made by me (V. Subhash)
My aversion to Google software began with the desktop version of Google Chrome. It was extremely... spywarish/malwarish. I could not kill it with the Task Manager. It respawned itself like a virus out of nowhere. It runs from an unusual location. It is continually downloading something and reguarly contacting Google servers even if no website is open in any tab. It downloads a lot of updates(?) and occupies a lot of space in the memory and in the hard disk. By default, it turns on the microphone and listens to it. (Most people don't know this.) It also has control over your webcam. Chrome browser settings provides very little control to the user over these questionable "features".
I am also very apprehensive about "social media". When Twitter stopped support for RSS feeds, I decided to write my own RSS server for Twitter called Subhash TweetsToRSS. It allows anyone to anonymously subscribe to Twitter accounts and "hashtags" using any RSS reader app. I also updated it so that it generated clutter web page results that can be viewed in any browser app.
In addition to TweetsToRSS, I wrote a lightweight Twitter client called EmailTweetor so that I could totally avoid using the official Twitter app. EmailTweetor lets to you do all the regular "tweeting" and also copy that information to other email, blogging and social media apps.
All of the above and other apps that I have written to protect my/your privacy. There is no data collection, error logging, registration, ads, etc. My Android software only require the minimum of app permissions.
My browser app (Subhash Browser & Feed Reader) uses only 3 permissions while most other browsers use 3 pages of permissions.
Apart from apps and some games, my Android devices only have stock apps. I remove/disable all apps from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, etc. There is only one app for which I don't have an alternative yet and that is Google Maps. But, I usually use a desktop browser on a PC before travels and create map screenshots.
Some more battery-saving tips
Apart from disabling unwanted apps and services, there are other things you can do to save on battery life.
- Optimize device and app settings.
- Minimize the number of apps you need to have. One RSS feed reader app can eliminate several dedicated apps. If a site offers RSS feeds, use the RSS feed instead of their app. Browse anonymously.
- Turn off services such as mobile data, Wi-Fi and GPS when they are not required.
- Turn off your phone when you are traveling because it will waste more energy trying to unsuccessfully connect to cell towers.
Enable Ethernet networking option in Android tablets. Use a USB LAN adapter with your OTG cable so that you can use a wired connection. Yes, use a LAN cable. Disable Wi-Fi in your router and enable Airplane mode in the tablet. (This option is not available in Android phones as of course they do not have Ethernet drivers.)
Avoid wireless radiation with a wired connection to your tablet. If your tablet supports USB host, it can use a USB-LAN adapter so that a LAN cable can be connected.
Finally, a security tip: Do not let your phone connect to any free Wi-Fi access point. Wi-Fi routers get infected with viruses and are now a favourite hacking method. Botnets work because of compromised routers. You could instead rely on a mobile data plan and use it only when necessary.