You have an Android phone and its manufacturer does not offer you any recent updates of your phone or its operating system? You are faced with the dilemma of either buying a new phone or keeping running an outdated device? Learn on this page how you can install and use a Free Software operating system on your phone that keeps your device up to date.
Installing a Free Software operating system means you often have more control over how long to use your device. In addition, it comes with a lot of other benefits. Free Software gives you full control over your device, you can finally de-install apps you could not before, and you profit from extended privacy protection - just to mention a few.
Please note: If you are new to the topic and this is the first time you are planning to install a new operating system on your device, be careful! Don't rush. Some steps are quite technical. Take your time to understand what you are doing. Do the necessary preparations and research for your particular device in advance. And remember that you are not alone! There is plenty of information and help available from diverse communities. Online and offline. These can be communities surrounding particular custom ROMs as well as general ones surrounding phone flashing. Many people also enjoy getting help by asking their local Free Software user group or repair café and getting to know likeminded people. Also, we run workshops to help you with it.
How does it work?
To get back full control of your device and to extend its usage lifetime, you can install a Free Software operating system. Installing an operating system on an Android device is called "flashing". And a Free Software alternative system based on the original Android operating system is called a "custom ROM".
Every time a new Android version is published there are multiple companies and communities who take the release code and re-publish it in modified versions as custom ROMs. This is possible because large parts of the Android operating system - excluding third party apps, the G-Suite, and some core libraries - are already Free Software. In practice, these custom ROMs usually ship a full Android experience but without the dependencies on Google's or other companies' proprietary software. And without other proprietary third-party apps that you might be used to seeing pre-installed when buying a new phone. Meaning they actually come more lightweight and slim.
Choosing a custom ROM
If you want to install a custom ROM on your phone, there are many ROMs to choose from. Some of them are closer to the original Android, others are more distant. Some include more Free Software components or pre-installed apps than others. Some have the focus on security, others on usability, others on modularity. The number of custom ROMs to choose from can be disconcerting in the beginning. But in the end the choice gets limited by the phone model you have and the type of system you like to have, so it boils down to a manageable number.
Just to mention a few prominent examples that also span a range to choose from: CalyxOS has a focus on security and comes with verified boot. LineageOS has its focus to be executable on as many devices as possible and Replicant puts focus on freedom by offering 100% Free Software, including the drivers. Use one of those or find one that suits your purposes well.
Controversies around phone flashing
Some phones are easier to upcycle than others. That is because some manufacturers make it artificially difficult for you to upcycle your phone. For example, by using heavy digital restriction management. Often they like you having to buy a new phone instead of renewing your current one. Therefore, many manufacturers also want to discourage you from flashing your phone by claiming that you will lose your warranty. However, according to the analysis of legal experts at FSFE, this is not true.
To be able to install a custom ROM, you sometimes need to unlock the bootloader of your device. The bootloader is an underlying software level on top of which you install the operating system. On some phones it is easy to unlock the bootloader, others not. Some custom ROMs can be installed without unlocking the bootloader, others not. Please note that we cannot offer you online or remote help with this process. But you are welcome to participate in one of our workshops.
If you currently need to buy a new phone it is recommended to choose your phone also based on its easiness for future upcycling. Not only do you make an easier time for yourself but also you support more open phones with your choice. There are also several phones that come with a custom ROM pre-installed. This is of course the easiest option since they take away all the burden and offer you an easy-to-use experience.
Discovering the world of Free Software
Free Software is what runs most of our digital infrastructure and our devices. The Internet heavily relies on the innovations and accessibility of Free Software. And during the last decade it also became of ever growing importance and availability on your phone.
Free Software comes with a lot of benefits. Free Software is available and can be used, studied, shared, and improved by anyone at any time. No restrictions involved. This is one of its core characteristics that in practice also helps to extend the usage lifetime of electronic devices - as outlined in our study. And Free Software is also good for your privacy. It helps you to keep control over your data. And, as you can see on this page, it also helps you to reduce e-waste and to upcycle your phone.
After upcycling your phone and installing a Free Software operating system on it you have the choice to manually post-install any other Android software on the phone, including proprietary software that might affect your freedom and privacy. For example, you could re-install the Google software and libraries again. But you do not have to! Keep control over your software and data and use your phone with as many Free Software apps as possible. For many users, upcycling their phones is just the beginning of a long journey into a world full of Free Software.
Any proprietary app that you can replace with a Free Software one is an important step towards a more sustainable digital environment, because any Free Software app you download and install will attract developers on the other hand to invest more resources in further development of the app. And any proprietary app that is replaced with a Free Software app is one step out of the dilemma of software obsolescence - as outlined in our study On the Sustainability of Free Software.
Discovering the full world of Free Software on your mobile phone with ease usually works with a Free Software app store called F-Droid and a replacement for the Google libraries called MicroG. If you are looking for enjoyable and useful apps you can find inspiration by browsing the F-Droid store or you can watch out for curated third-party catalogues like Fossdroid or Droid-Break.
The F-Droid initiative has completely changed and facilitated Free Software app availability in the Android world by offering a repository of easily-installable Free Software apps for the Android platform. In practice this means that you can use F-Droid in a similar way to what you might have experienced when using Google Play Store or other app stores. F-Droid makes it easy to browse Free Software applications, install or uninstall them onto your device, and keep track of updates.
MicroG describes itself as a "Free Software re-implementation of Google’s proprietary Android user space apps and libraries". In practice that means MicroG allows other Free Software apps to seamlessly integrate into the Android system without having to use Google software for this. Free Software users get extended application support, privacy-caring users can reduce or monitor data that is sent to Google and especially older phones can expect some battery life improvements.
Regain control of your device!
This page could only glimpse the possibilities and the benefits of using Free Software on your device. It brings back control over your data, your software, and your hardware to you. If you want to install Free Software on your device now on your own you will find a lot of information on the Internet. If you want to visit one of our workshops check out our workshop page. If you like this initiative spread the word, join the movement, and tell others about our initiative and goals.
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The Android robot is reproduced or modified from work created and shared by Google and used according to terms described in the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License.