For over a year I have used a Google-less smart phone, at first with just LineageOS and later with LineageOS+MicroG. It was a nice experiment but my phone was causing too much trouble and in the end I got fed up and bought a new phone (Samsung Galaxy S10e). I hope one day to have a free phone again (maybe if the Librem 5 will succeed) but currently there isn't a real alternative that is worth the sacrifice.
But why is it that hard to have a free1 version of Android? It's because Google have slowly made it harder to have alternative versions of Android without Google and made consumer think of Android as AOSP+Play Services when in reality Play Services were not an integral part of Android. The first example that I have of this is a commit by Anonymous Coward that removed the ability to choose a search engine in GlobalSearch and would crash if Google is not installed.
Since then, Google continued to slowly removing or deprecating features that were not dependent on Google's proprietary software. The Play Store for example was not a big part of Android ten years ago. In a book about Android from 20112 the author wrote:
One way in which Android is quite different from other platforms is the distribution of its apps. On most other platforms, such as iPhone, a single vendor holds a monopoly over the distribution of applications. On Android, there are many different stores, or markets. Each market has its own set of policies with respect to what is allowed, how the revenue is split, and so on. As such, Android is much more of a free market space in which vendors compete for business.
That paragraph did not age well, today it will be quite hard to find an Android phone without the Play Store outside of China. Not because there are no alternative stores but because you must install Play Store if you want Google Play Services.
The result of tying Android with Google Play Services and the Google play store is that application developers won't target AOSP, they will target AOSP+Play Services. The tying also allow Google to move features from AOSP to a proprietary alternative without anyone caring (or even cheering for it), there is no AOSP Calendar but instead you are supposed to use Google Calendar.
Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg, Moovit for example refused to work at all without the Play Services and Telegram showed me a constant notification just so it will be able to send me push notifications3. All of those problems together made me install MicroG which was a nice idea but in practice crashed a lot and didn't support some Play Services APIs. MicroG wasn't the saviour I needed so I decided to just buy a new phone4.
Free as in speech, Android is already free as in beer ↩︎
Learning Android by OReilly ↩︎
Who the fuck thought it was a good UX? ↩︎
I didn't want to use MIUI so reinstalling the stock rom was not an option ↩︎