Estimated reading time: 12 minute(s)

On August 10, 2022, my November 21, 2021 article titled Review of /e/ – An Android Alternative For Mobile Phones made the top-3 articles on Hacker News. The post inspired 231 comments on Hacker News. I was unable to chime in contemporaneously because I was in the midst of flying and pacing back and forth in airports. Once I discovered what I had missed, I took the time to read through the Hacker News comments. Almost all of the comments were about /e/ OS and the mobile operating system ecosystem generally rather than my specific review. However, I noticed while reading through the comments that a few commenters took issue with the title of my post, specifically my describing /e/ OS as an “Android alternative” despite the fact that it is ultimately based on Android. Those comments apparently caused the title of the Hacker News post to be changed from “Android alternative” to “Android-based alternative.” Because I missed the chance to comment while the discussion was going on, I will avail myself to the opportunity here on The New Leaf Journal.

Public domain Openclipart image of 10 variations of the Android logo.
Public domain image of many Android logos submitted to Openclipart.

Am I convinced that I erred in calling /e/ OS (also known as Murena) an “Android alternative”?

I am not convinced.

What Is /e/ OS?

Before I get into the Hacker News semantics debate, I will first clarify what exactly /e/ OS is for those who have not read my original article. Forgive me if my description is at any point clumsy.

Android, along with iOS, is one of the two major operating systems. Unlike iOS, Android, which is based on a modified version of the Linux kernel, is open source (see Android Open Source Project. However, Google purchased Android in 2007 and develops it. While Android itself is technically open source, Android devices that make it to market tend to be locked down and include proprietary components from Google and, in many cases, the device manufacturer (e.g., Samsung, Motorola).

Because Android is open source, it is possible to use Android as a base for different projects. For example, Amazon’s Fire OS and BlackBerry’s now-former BlackBerry 10 were built in part on Android (see my articles on running Open Camera and KDE Connect on a BlackBerry 10 device). These operating systems, like Google’s projects, are proprietary.

There are a number of open source operating systems built on top of Android. One of the best-known examples is LineageOS, which is Android without most of the Google. (I described installing LineageOS on a 2013 Google Nexus 7 in an earlier post.) LineageOS is a free and open source fork of Android. /e/ OS, or Murena, is a fork of LineageOS, a fork of a fork so to speak. The Murena project differentiates itself from LineageOS in providing its own free and open source launcher and suite of default apps, easy (but not-required) integration with its own cloud services, and being completely de-Googled. I noted several other forks in the general category in my /e/ OS review.

One can think of the Android ecosystem as being somewhat similar to Chromium in the browser space. Chromium is an open source browser and the project is heavily influenced by Google. There are many browsers based on Chromium, with Google’s Chrome being the most-used by a wide margin. However, because Chromium itself is open source, other companies have built their own Chromium-based browsers. Microsoft Edge, Opera, and Vivaldi are examples of proprietary browsers based on Chromium. Brave and Bromite (mobile only) are free and open source browsers based on Chromium.

Additional Resources on Android and Open Source

For those who are interested in reading more, I put together a list of articles and resources about Android’s relationship with open source:

These posts provide broad explanations (and a few opinions) about the open source nature of Android.

Arguments Against /e/ As An Android Alternative

Before noting some of the Android alternative critiques, I should note that it is possible that some of the objections were limited specifically to the title of the post on Hacker News rather than the title of my article. That is, while I cannot say for sure, it is possible that one or more of the commenters only objected within the specific context of framing my review for a technical audience and not in the broader sense of my review itself, which was intended to be accessible to a general audience. That is, Hacker News readers and commenters are more likely than the general public to understand the concept of the Android Open Source Project and the proprietary components that come with Android devices.

Most of the Hacker News discussion did not concern whether /e/ should properly be classified as an Android alternative. Before continuing, I will note that some commenters referred to it as an alternative in the same manner that I did. For example, a commenter who went by “commoner” wrote that “[i]t’s promising that more and more alternative Android distributions…” Whether he meant “alternative” in exactly the same way that I did when I wrote the title aside, I will count this line as close enough.

Other commenters disagreed.

A commenter who went by “Arrgh” opined:

It’s not an ‘alternative’, it’s still Android, just a fork of a fork.

Another commenter, mcv, agreed but added context:

It’s an alternative Android, rather than an alternative to Android. Or it’s an alternative to stock-Android.

Another commenter who went by “attah_” took a much harder line against the title:

Calling it an alternative is an insult against actual alternatives. It’s still Android, just less googly.

(This comment appears to have been down-voted. Because I am not addressing it later, I will note that this is the sort of gate-keeping take that I warned against in my essay on the future of gaming on Linux. While I too would like to see more distinct alternatives to Android and iOS, we should welcome alternatives such as LineageOS and /e/ that can increase user privacy (depending on how they are used) while also providing a close-enough experience to Android that many regular people can use them as daily drivers. While I am a light phone user, one of the pure Linux Android alternatives or even Ubuntu Touch would require a bit of an adjustment. Both options would be wholly unworkable for others.)

One of the critiques led to the title of the Hacker News submission being changed. Commenter PufPufPuf indicated that he or she found the title of the Hacker News submission, which was the same as the title of my review, confusing:

When the title said “Android alternative”, I was actually expecting an alternative OS (like Sailfish or Ubuntu Touch), not a mere LineageOS fork. That’s like calling Ubuntu a “Linux alternative”.

This is definitely the most substantive critique of my title. Unsurprisingly, this was the critique that led to the title of the Hacker News submission being modified to Android-based.

Murena is an Android Alternative

While there were a number of compelling critiques of my choice to classify /e/ OS as an “Android alternative,” I ultimately found them unconvincing, and thus left the title of my own post unchanged.

Both mcv and PufPufPuf appear to have distinguished the term “Android” from the “Android” that people actually encounter on Android devices. That is, both commenters considered Android in the context of the Android Open Source Project, the core Android. The first comment by mcv came the closest to stating this expressly when he or she proposed describing /e/ OS as an “alternative to stock-Android,” with “stock-Android” presumably referring to the product that is actually installed on Android devices. PufPufPuf appears to have made a similar suggestion wherein he or she stated that calling /e/ OS an “Android alternative” is analogous to calling Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution, a “Linux alternative.” Here, PufPufPuf appears to be making a reference to the Android kernel rather than to end-user Android.

Neither of the critiques are wrong per se, but I do not think that they establish that the title of my article, or the title of the original Hacker News post, is or was unclear. In common parlance, Android refers to the end-product that Google produces and licenses to phone, tablet, and television manufacturers. While I am not ensconced in the developer community like many of the most prolific Hacker News commenters, I dare suggest that even among many more technical users, if one refers to “Android” in general conversation, it is understood that the reference is to what mcv described as “stock-Android.” For example, if someone posts a comparison of Android and iOS, that comparison would be commonly understood outside of very specific contexts as comparing Android as it appears on phones and tablets to iOS on iPhones and iPads. I will venture that in most cases, a writer would specify if he or she is referring to Android’s open source base or the Android kernel, not when he or she is referring to Android as it is actually experienced by tens of millions of end-users.

For the foregoing reasons, I disagree with PufPufPuf’s contention that calling /e/ OS an “Android alternative” can be understood in ordinary useage as analogous to calling Ubuntu a Linux alternative. Linux, specifically the Linux kernel, is an operating system. Ubuntu is one of many Linux distributions that is built on top of the Linux kernel. I am typing this article on a computer running Manjaro, which is a different Linux distribution than Ubuntu. Outside of the context of Linux kernel development and some technical cases beyond the scope of my competency, I believe that most people think of actually using Linux in terms of Linux distributions, that is, Linux versions built on top of the Linux kernel.

Now, to be sure, some people, especially newcomers to Linux, may respond to a question of “what operating system do you use?” with “Linux.” However, my understanding from my couple of years of learning about Linux is that most Linux-users would respond with the distribution(s) of Linux that they run. For example, if someone asked me, I would say that I run Manjaro Linux on my main desktop, EndeavourOS on my laptop, and Ubuntu on the server hosting The New Leaf Journal. It is more common and natural to respond to the question of “what kind of phone do you use?” with “iOS” or “Android.” That is, “Android” is associated with the Android installed on consumer devices in a way that “Linux” is not. My Pocketbook Color e-reader and MikroTik router both run proprietary Linux distributions, but it would be unnatural for me to say describe them as running “Linux” in the same way as I would my main desktop computer. To expand the point, one is more likely to refer to an Android TV as an “Android TV” than he or she is likely to refer to an e-reader as a “Linux e-reader” (in the context of e-readers, one would more likely specify that he or she has a Kindle, Kobo, Pocketbook, or Nook).

What Qualifies as an Android Alternative?

To begin, I am using the term “Android” in its most natural and commonly-used sense, to refer to the Android that comes preinstalled on Android devices (unless otherwise expressly stated). Thus, broadly speaking with reference to phones and tablets, an Android alternative is an operating system designed to run on these mobile devices that is not Android, or “stock-Android” as mcv put it to cover every “Android” use-case. The universe of Android alternatives encompasses entirely distinct operating systems such as iOS and mobile Linux and alternative distributions of Android and mobile Linux.

However, the broadest possible use-case is not necessarily the most useful. For example, under the broad definition, Amazon’s Fire OS is an Android alternative. However, to the best of my knowledge, people only use Fire OS on Kindle Fire devices and other Amazon electronics. Android is most commonly used on phones, and people do not replace Android with Fire OS (some do replace Fire OS with Android or an Android-based OS, however). For this reason, calling Fire OS an Android alternative is both clumsy and not useful. It would be more natural to discuss a Kindle Fire tablet as an alternative to an Android tablet or an iPad than it would be to discuss Fire OS as an alternative to Android or stock-Android.

In contrast to some of the Hacker News critiques, I think that the term “Android alternative” is most useful when referring to LineageOS and related forks of open source Android, including /e/ OS, Calyx OS, Graphene, and others. Most people who are (A) looking for an alternative to Android and (B) are not iPhone users are likely concerned with having more control over their devices and removing Google’s telemetry. For these purposes, the universe of Android Open Source Project forks provide viable options in that they use Android’s UI, run Android apps (although results vary regarding apps that require Google Play Services), and generally deliver similar experiences for certain use-cases. I do not disagree with PufPufPuf to the extent that he or she suggested that alternative mobile operating systems such as Sailfish and Ubuntu Touch (see my review of an Ubuntu Touch install) are more distinct from stock-Android than LineageOS and /e/ OS, but they are also less practical as alternatives in the ordinary sense than are LineageOS and /e/ OS. However, in light of the fact that almost every device that can run an official build of Ubuntu Touch comes with stock Android, it certainly qualifies as an alternative, albeit a more distant one than /e/ OS.

Speaking for myself, if I come across the phrase Android alternative, my first thought would be a mobile operating system that is similar to Android or one that can be replace stock Android on specified devices.

Having noted that I disagreed with PufPufPuf’s analogizing the idea of /e/ OS as an Android alternative to Ubuntu as a Linux alternative, this take did inspire in me the thought that we can discuss the Android forks and derivatives in a manner similar to which we discuss Linux distributions. Manjaro Linux and EndeavourOS, which I run on my main desktop and laptop, are both based on Arch Linux. They distinguish themselves from Arch in providing more user-friendly installers and utilities, with EndeavourOS being much closer to base Arch than Manjaro. I think that it is fair to call both Manjaro and EndeavourOS alternatives to Arch Linux, each bringing a different set of strengths and weaknesses for certain use cases. Moreover, I run Bodhi Linux on my old desktop (I discussed installing it on an old Macbook in a separate article). Bodhi Linux is based on Ubuntu Linux, which in turn is based on Debian. Thus, Bodhi, like /e/ OS, is a “fork of a fork.” Bodhi comes with a unique desktop environment, but its selling point is that it is very light on system resources, thus making it a good option for old or otherwise low-powered computers. I think that it would be perfectly fair to call Bodhi an alternative to Ubuntu for specific use-cases, especially since Ubuntu is the best-known Linux distribution in the general public (granted, that is soft praise).

Now let us return to /e/ OS. The selling points of /e/ OS are that it is de-Googled but offers users most of the amenities that they would expect with stock Android and is designed to be user-friendly. /e/ OS is an Android alternative for normies, so to speak. This concept can be analogized to selling the idea of Linux to a Windows or Mac user.

Let us consider the fictional case of Sean. Sean is a long-time Windows user. He does not like Windows 11 and wants to try Linux. Sean is comfortable with the classic Windows UI (his favorites were Windows XP and 7). Sean initially installed Ubuntu with the GNOME desktop environment because he thought that was coextensive with “Linux.” While he can get around, he is not comfortable with GNOME, which provides a different feel and workflow than Windows. Sean’s friend recommends Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop environment as an alternative to Ubuntu. Mint is actually based on Ubuntu, but it is set up in a way that is easily intelligible to Windows users. Here, it is natural to call Mint an alternative to Ubuntu even though Mint and Ubuntu are both Linux distributions and Mint is forked from Ubuntu. Were Sean to say “this is a great alternative to Ubuntu,” it would be strange to correct him by explaining that it is a fork of a fork and calling it an “alternative” is an “insult” to Haiku, an alternative free and open source operating system that is not based on the Linux kernel.

(Were Sean a Mac user, perhaps the example would run the other direction. Maybe Sean would have started on Linux Mint but have been more comfortable with Ubuntu or an even more Mac OS-like environment such as Elementary OS.)

Conclusion

It is sometimes difficult to come up with article titles. The reason for this is that I try to keep article titles short enough such that they do not get cut off when they appear in search results or are shared on social media. Writing titles is an art with space constraints, very much unlike articles. Having reflected on my decision to describe /e/ OS as an “Android alternative” last November, I stand by it. I think that the title conveys what the review is about (a mobile operating system that people can run in lieu of Android, as the term “Android” is commonly understood). To be sure, there is no issue with adding -based, even though /e/ is, as I and some commenters noted, “a fork of a fork,” but I do not think that the addition of -based is necessary, especially since the word “alternative” signals that I am reviewing something that can replace Android for certain use-cases.

While I stand by my title, it was interesting to see some different well-reasoned opinions about what an “Android alternative” is on Hacker News. I conclude by thanking everyone who read the article and especially those on Hacker News who took the time to not only read the post, but share their thoughts on it. If you are interested in Android and different mobile operating systems, I encourage you to read the Hacker News comments on my post.