For over a year now, I have been using CyanogenMod in my Nexus phone. At first I just installed some bundle that brought all the proprietary Google applications and libraries, but later I decided that I wanted more control over it, so I did a clean install with no proprietary stuff.
This was not so great at the beginning, because the base system lacks the geolocation helpers that allow you to get a position in seconds (using GSM antennas and Wifi APs). And so, every time I opened OsmAnd (a great maps application, free software and free maps), I would have to wait minutes for the GPS radio to locate enough satellites.
Shortly after, I found about the UnifiedNLP project that provided a drop-in replacement for the location services, using pluggable location providers. This worked great, and you could choose to use the Apple or Mozilla on-line providers, or off-line databases that you could download or build yourself.
This worked well for most of my needs, and I was happy about it. I also had F-droid for installing free software applications, DAVdroid for contacts and calendar synchronisation, K9 for reading email, etc. I still needed some proprietary apps, but most of the stuff in my phone was Free Software.
But sadly, more and more application developers are buying into the vendor lock-in that is Google Play Services, which is a set of APIs that offer some useful functionality (including the location services), but that require non-free software that is not part of the AOSP (Android Open-Source Project). Mostly, this is because they make push notifications a requirement, or because they want you to be able to buy stuff from the application.
This is not limited to proprietary software. Most notably, the Signal project refuses to work without these libraries, or even to distribute the pre-compiled binaries on any platform that is not Google Play! (This is one of many reason why I don't recommend Signal to anybody).
And of course, many very useful services that people use every day require you to install proprietary applications, which care much less about your choices of non-standard platforms.
For the most part, I had been able to just get the package files for these applications1 from somewhere, and have the functionality I wanted.
Some apps would just work perfectly, others would complain about the lack of Play Services, but offer a degraded experience. You would not get notifications unless you re-opened the application, stuff like that. But they worked. Lately, some of the closed-source apps I sometimes use stopped working altogether.
So, tired of all this, I decided to give the MicroG project a try.
MicroG is a direct descendant of UnifiedNLP and the NOGAPPS project. I had known about it for a while, but the installation procedures always put me off.
LWN published an article about them recently, and so I decided to spend a good chunk of time making it work. This blog post is to help making this a bit less painful.
- No Gapps installed.
- Rooted phone (at least for the mechanism I describe here).
- Working ADB with root access to the phone.
- UnifiedNLP needs to be uninstalled (MicroG carries its own version of it).
The main problem with the installation, is that MicroG needs to pretend to be the original Google bundle. It has to show the same name, but most importantly, it has to spoof its cryptographic signatures so other applications do not realise it is not the real thing.
OmniROM and MarshROM (other alternative firmwares for Android) provide support for signature spoofing out of the box. If you are running these, go ahead and install MicroG, it will be very easy! Sadly, the CyanogenMod refused allowing signature spoofing, citing security concerns2, so most users will have to go the hard way.
The options for enabling this feature are basically two: either patch some core libraries H4xx0r style, or use the "Xposed framework". Since I still don't really understand what this Xposed thing is, and it is one of these projects that distributes files on XDA forums, I decided to go the dirty way.
Patching the ROM
Note: this method requires a rooted phone, java, and adb.
The MicroG wiki links to three different projects for patching your ROM, but turns out that two of them would not work at all with CyanogenMod 11 and 13 (the two versions I tried), because the system is "odexed" (whatever that means, the Android ecosystem is really annoying).
I actually upgraded CM to version 13 just to try this, so a couple of hours went there, with no results.
The project that did work is Haystack by Lanchon, which seems to be the cleaner and better developed of the three. Also the one with the most complex documentation.
In a nutshell, you need to download a bunch of files from the phone, apply a series of patches to it, and then reupload it.
To obtain the files and place them in the
maguro (the codename for my phone) directory:
$ ./pull-fileset maguro
Now you need to apply some patches with the
patch-fileset script. The patches are located in the
$ ls patches sigspoof-core sigspoof-hook-1.5-2.3 sigspoof-hook-4.0 sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0 sigspoof-hook-7.0 sigspoof-ui-global-4.1-6.0 sigspoof-ui-global-7.0
patch-fileset script takes these parameters:
patch-fileset <patch-dir> <api-level> <input-dir> [ <output-dir> ]
Note that this requires knowing your Android version, and the API level. If you don't specify an output directory, it will append the patch name to the input directory name. Note that you should also check the output of the script for any warnings or errors!
First, you need to apply the patch that hooks into your specific version of Android (6.0, API level 23 in my case):
$ ./patch-fileset patches/sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0 23 maguro >>> target directory: maguro__sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0 [...] *** patch-fileset: success
Now, you need to add the core spoofing module:
$ ./patch-fileset patches/sigspoof-core 23 maguro__sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0 >>> target directory: maguro__sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0__sigspoof-core [...] *** patch-fileset: success
And finally, add the UI elements that let you enable or disable the signature spoofing:
$ ./patch-fileset patches/sigspoof-ui-global-4.1-6.0 23 maguro__sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0__sigspoof-core >>> target directory: maguro__sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0__sigspoof-core__sigspoof-ui-global-4.1-6.0 [...] *** patch-fileset: success
Now, you have a bundle ready to upload to your phone, and you do that with the
$ ./push-fileset maguro__sigspoof-hook-4.1-6.0__sigspoof-core__sigspoof-ui-global-4.1-6.0
After this, reboot your phone, go to settings / developer settings, and at the end you should find a checkbx for "Allow signature spoofing" which you should now enable.
Now that the difficult part is done, the rest of the installation is pretty easy. You can add the MicroG repository to F-Droid and install the rest of the modules from there. Check the installation guide for all the details.
Once all the parts are in place, and after a last reboot, you should find a MicroG settings icon that will check that everything is working correctly, and give you the choice of which components to enable.
So far, other applications believe this phone has nothing weird, I get quick GPS fixes, push notifications seem to work... Not bad at all for such a young project!
Hope this is useful. I would love to hear your feedback in the comments!
Which is a pretty horrible thing, having to download from fishy sites because Google refuses to let you use the marketplace without their proprietary application. I used to use a chrome extension to trick Google Play into believing your phone was downloading it, and so you could get the APK file, but now that I have no devices running stock Android, that does not work any more. ↩
Actually, I am still a bit concerned about this, because it is not completely clear to me how protected this is against malicious actors (I would love to get feedback on this!). ↩