Many of us are now looking for ways to break our dependency on Google, but on Android, that can mean having to give up access to all the software available on Google Play. Even apps that don’t come from the Play Store often still rely on Google Play Services. Does that mean all is lost?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. microG is an option that, while not capable of replacing Google Play Services entirely, may just be good enough to do what you wish to do.
What Is microG?
Android is technically a free and open-source operating system, but the version you find pre-installed on the overwhelming majority of phones and tablets isn’t. That’s because Google and other device makers provide layers of closed, proprietary code on top of the Android base.
Google Play Services is one of those layers. It comes with any device that ships with the Google Play Store. Many, if not most, of the apps that come from the Play Store require Google Play Services to function.
If you install a custom ROM, you get the open-source parts of Android without Google’s added bits. You have the option to add in Google’s code, but many people install custom ROMs specifically to reduce Google’s presence in their lives. The catch is that doing so means doing without many apps that have little to do with Google.
Some open-source applications even depend on Google Play Services, meaning you need a layer of proprietary code to run an open-source app on an open-source OS. That’s where microG comes in.
microG is a free and open-source implementation of Google Play Services. A custom ROM with microG can mimic enough of the functionality Google Play Services provides for many of those apps to work again. This enables you to use certain apps while no longer needing to have a Google account tied to your phone.
How microG Works
Google Play Services is not a single piece of software. To replicate the various aspects of this technology, microG consists of several components.
- Service Code (GmsCore): Provides functionality needed to run apps that utilize Google Play Services or the Google Maps Android API (v2).
- Services Framework Proxy (GsfProxy): Allows apps that utilize Google Cloud to Device Messaging (C2DM) to use the compatible Google Cloud Messaging service included with GmsCore.
- Unified Network Location Provider (UnifiedNIp): Provides Wi-Fi and Cell tower-based geolocation to apps that use Google’s network location provider.
- Maps API (mapsv1): Provides the same functionality as the deprecated Google Maps API (v1).
This is all very technical. If you want to dive into the details, you can find more detailed explanations of each of these components on the microG website, but you don’t need to worry about it otherwise.
How to Get microG
The easiest way to get your hands on microG is to buy a phone that comes with microG pre-installed. There are a few options, such as a Murena phone from the /e/ Foundation or a modified Pixel from the Calyx Institute.
If you are familiar with how to install a custom ROM on an Android phone, then the next easiest approach is to install a custom ROM that already includes microG. Here are a few examples:
Note that while LineageOS supports the widest number of devices, the version with microG baked in is an unofficial fork not affiliated with the LineageOS project. The OmniROM and CalyxOS projects both provide official support for microG and include them as part of the ROM, but they support far fewer devices. For many users, LineageOS will be the only option.
If you already have a custom ROM installed, or you feel more comfortable installing microG separately yourself, that is also an option. It is more complicated, requiring a ROM that comes with signature spoofing baked in, or for you to patch the ROM to make it support signature spoofing. You then can install F-Droid, add microG’s F-Droid repository and install the necessary apps, whose APKs you can also find on microG’s download page.
Do Most Apps Work With microG?
microG is an ongoing project and does not have full feature parity with Google Play Services. Projects like this are rarely able to serve as fully-functional drop-in replacements for the service they seek to replace since they are essentially playing a game of cat and mouse.
This means that if you expect to have a more private, open phone with the ability to run any Google app or any app from the Play Store, you are likely to walk away disappointed. But if you are already comfortable with the apps that come with your custom ROM or are available in F-Droid, and you just wish you had one or two apps only available from the Play Store, there is a greater chance that microG will help you accomplish your goal.
If you expect most apps to not work or to come with quirks, and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised when they work well enough, then you may be more likely to appreciate what the microG project has managed to provide.
Google apps can be hit or miss. It’s possible to run Google Maps, for example, but Android Auto support isn’t yet there. Banking apps may be a non-starter, as these often check underlying parts of your system to make sure your device isn’t compromised, and to a banking app’s eyes, taking the steps necessary to install a custom ROM means your device is now compromised.
But microG may be enough to get an app you need to charge an electric car on a particular charging network, or to install your favorite video editor that doesn’t rely on Google Play Services to do all that much. You can hail a ride with Uber again, for example, but you may need to fall back to the website if there’s a bug or things stop working.
If your general inclination is to avoid big technology companies or software from large corporations, and you’re just trying to get access to the great catalog of apps from small developers in the Play Store, then you will probably have an easier time. But there are no guarantees.
Should You Use microG?
For many of us, the thought of carrying around a device that is tied to a Google account is not one we’re comfortable with. If such an idea leaves you feeling uneasy enough to wipe your device and do without most of the software in the Play Store, and you’re already accustomed to workarounds, then microG is a great tool to add to your belt. It expands what software you can run without tracking what you do.
microG doesn’t make it easy to break out of the Google ecosystem, but it does make the job easier.