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5 AI-free alternatives to Android and iOS

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5 AI-free alternatives to Android and iOS

Roll back a few years, and the mobile market was a diverse place full of platforms like Android, BlackBerry, iOS (then iPhoneOS), webOS, and Windows Mobile, along with several feature phone platforms. Now, the market has consolidated to all but two: Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Apple and Google increasingly leverage their market positions to control app distribution and all the personal information smartphones can collect.

Increasingly, Big Tech is using that consolidated data-collection power to fuel its new AI initiatives. The most notorious example is Microsoft’s Recall feature, which has since been recalled and would constantly capture screenshots of what you’re doing on your Windows PC. Apple’s partnership with OpenAI and its recent AI initiatives have spawned similar concerns, and, of course, Google is entering the AI data-collection race with Android.

When you switch to an alternative operating system, especially one that's developed by a volunteer community, you trade convenience and user experience for the sake of sticking it to the man.

How can you avoid the AI panopticon? There are many alternatives to the Apple and Google mobile juggernauts, many based on Android’s open-source code base minus the Google spyware. In this article, we’ll examine five of the top alternatives.


  • Preinstalled or self-install: Self-install
  • License type: Open
  • Noteworthy devices: GrapheneOS only works on Google Pixel phones. The team maintains a list of recommended hardware.
  • Variants: Android, CalyxOS, LineageOS

A bit of Android history: The core of Google’s Android mobile operating system is open source, which means that anyone can download the code, modify it, and even redistribute it. In the early days of Android, CyanogenMod was a popular open-source Android variant. After CyanogenMod unsuccessfully tried to go commercial, the team reconvened for a new open-source Android variant, LineageOS, which is still being actively developed.

GrapheneOS is one of the most popular forks of LineageOS, and it’s also the most polished. That’s partly because the GrapheneOS team only supports Google’s Pixel devices, so there are fewer hardware variables when squashing software bugs.

You may be wondering: If Google gives away Android for free, how does it make money from it? While Android is free and open-source, such as the Google Play Store, Google's apps and services are not. Phone manufacturers pay Google big money to include those Google services on their phones, and Google, in turn, uses those apps to gather your personal information.

Many free Android spin-offs don’t offer Google apps and services; instead, they offer open-source app markets like F-Droid. However, those app markets won’t have all the apps you expect from a smartphone and likely won’t have many you think you need.

The GrapheneOS team has a clever workaround: The Play Store is not preinstalled, but you can install a “sandboxed” version that is walled off from your personal information. That means you can use your usual set of smartphone apps but with (theoretically) better security.

However, GrapheneOS has one major security endorsement: It’s the mobile OS preferred by Edward Snowden and has been for many years.

GrapheneOS Pros

  • Free and open-source
  • Excellent security endorsements
  • Relatively user-friendly
  • You can access the Google Play Store for conventional apps.

GrapheneOS Cons

  • You must install it yourself, which may be beyond your technical comfort.
  • It only works on Google Pixel devices

Unplugged Phone

  • Preinstalled or self-install: Preinstalled
  • License type: Closed
  • Noteworthy devices: Unplugged Phone

The Unplugged Phone is a new player in the smartphone world from Erik Prince. Yes, that is Erik Prince of Blackwater fame. It’s available for $989 and, unlike many of the alternative OS options, is ready to go out of the box. It only works on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, not Verizon.

Erik Prince: NATO vs. Russia, the Secrets of Drone Warfare, and CIA Corruption

The Unplugged Phone runs a proprietary, closed-source fork for Android called LibertOS. Since no one can examine the source code for LibertOS, it has caused concern among privacy advocates who fear that it may be doing things you wouldn’t want it to do. Unplugged counters this with several reassurances:

  • It hires independent auditors to test the phone’s security (we would love to see these reports).
  • It works with Cye Security to advise on security issues.
  • The company invites security professionals to visit its offices or join its White Hat testing program.

One of the unique features of the Unplugged Phone is the kill switch, which is a literal off switch for the device that disconnects the battery from the electronics. What a concept! In terms of hardware, it offers what you would expect from a premium phone, such as high-resolution cameras and a fingerprint scanner. Much of the software is custom, such as the app store and elaborate privacy center, to manage privacy settings.

Like any Android fork, you can expect to encounter app compatibility issues and other rough edges. However, the idea of a de-Googled secure phone that provides a pleasant experience out of the box is compelling. We have not reviewed the Unplugged Phone ourselves but would love to do so.

Unplugged Phone Pros

  • Provides an out-of-the-box privacy experience
  • Backed by a commercial company

Unplugged Phone Cons

  • Closed-source
  • Uncertain security

Linux Mobile

  • Preinstalled or self-install: Both
  • License type: Open
  • Noteworthy devices: Purism Librem 5, Pinephone
  • Variants: PureOS, Plasma Mobile, Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch

While Android is ostensibly open-source, Linux is the OG open-source operating system, and it’s slowly been making inroads to mobile in recent years in a few different flavors, such as:

  • PureOS
  • Plasma Mobile
  • Ubuntu Touch

Unfortunately, none of these operating systems are even close to ready for everyday users, and many Linux users will warn you as such. Case in point: One of the “best” Linux phones on the market is the Purism Librem 5, and, in our review, we found it an utterly dreadful experience full of crashy, incomplete software and poor battery life.

If you want an open-source alternative on mobile, we recommend one of the Android variants listed here. However, if you’re a curious techy or a developer, the $199 PinePhone is an intriguing toy. It’s a fully functional LTE phone that runs all the prominent mobile flavors of Linux and is designed to be user-repairable. It almost certainly won’t replace your phone, but it could help pave the way for a more open future.

Linux can be made user-friendly, even on mobile devices, as proven by the popularity of Valve’s Steam Deck, a Linux-powered portable game console (like a Nintendo Switch) that plays PC games.

That said, Linux mobile has some high points. One cool feature is the option to plug a Linux phone into a USB-C hub, connect a monitor and peripherals, and use it as a desktop computer. Samsung has been trying to get traction for this idea for years with its Samsung DeX feature, but it’s never taken off.

Linux Mobile Pros

  • Open-source, community-driven
  • Supports mobile versions of many popular Linux apps
  • It can be used as a desktop computer

Linux Mobile Cons

  • Poor battery life
  • Slow
  • Unstable


  • Preinstalled or self-install: Preinstalled on feature phones
  • License type: Open source
  • Noteworthy devices: Nokia 6300 4G, Nokia 8110 4G, Alcatel Go Flip 3

KaiOS is a Linux-based mobile operating system aimed at feature phones. KaiOS tries to do something interesting: provide the simplicity and intentionally limited capabilities of a feature phone along with the apps we’ve all become dependent upon, like WhatsApp and Google Maps. It comes preinstalled on hundreds of budget feature phones.

It’s a promising idea, and KaiOS enjoys many supported devices and apps. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t brilliant. KaiOS is often slow, and apps can be buggy or broken. Reddit’s /r/KaiOS community has a pinned post titled, “Is KaiOS dead? (maybe not, or maybe)” with comments like:

“I bought my wife a KaiOS flip phone once, but it was rather buggy and unstable so she got rid of it. I was impressed how well the interface, even Google maps, was tailored for keyboard.”

“I wanted kaiOS devices and had two KaiOS Nokias, but the terrible typing experience, and the buggy whatsapp support was the killer for me.”

“I used a KaiOS device for a while as I dislike touchscreens and techbloat. However, it was buggy as hell, and was missing a lot of basic functional apps for things like GPS. I went over to a rugged android device, and in reality, despite the issues with Android bloat, privacy and the drawbacks of touchscreens, it proved more effective.”

KaiOS Pros

  • Wide variety of phone styles: flip phones, bar phones, keyboard phones, etc.
  • Cheap phones
  • Rich app ecosystem

KaiOS Cons

  • Buggy and unstable

Sailfish OS

  • Preinstalled or self-install: Self-install
  • License type: Open source with closed-source components
  • Noteworthy devices: Select Sony Xperia devices
  • Cost: 24.90 €

Sailfish might be the oddest duck of the lot. It’s produced by the Finnish company Jolla, originally for its 2013 Jolla Phone. That phone failed commercially, but the OS lives on. However, it only supports certain Sony Xperia phones. Furthermore, while you can try Sailfish OS for free, the full version requires buying a license. Sailfish OS is based on Linux but has an Android compatibility layer to run Android apps.

Sailfish doesn’t include Google services and places a heavy emphasis on privacy. Unfortunately, while it was ahead of its time years ago, it’s now getting a bit long in the tooth with its minimal device support list.

Sailfish OS Pros

  • Commercially supported
  • Linux based with Android compatibility

Sailfish OS Cons

  • Limited device support
  • Requires a paid license

What to know before making the switch

Android and iOS dominate the mobile market for some very good reasons. They’re fairly easy to use, well-supported, and have vast libraries of apps. By and large, an iPhone or Android phone just works.

When you switch to an alternative operating system, especially one that’s developed by a volunteer community, you trade convenience and user experience for the sake of sticking it to the man. Many of these operating systems require a complex installation process, and the user experience and app support may be janky when compared to Apple and Google’s offerings.

My recommendation is to try these alternative operating systems on an inexpensive spare phone and not your daily driver. Many Android alternatives support the Google Pixel phones — buy a used one — and the PinePhone gives you a cheap way to try mobile Linux. That gives you a risk-free way to try out these operating systems and see if you can get by with their limited capabilities.

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Josh Centers

Josh Centers

Josh Centers is a veteran tech journalist and author of over a dozen tech how-to books. From his outpost in rural Tennessee, he operates, the top Substack newsletter for preparedness.