Why I crowd funded a GNU/Linux phone

Purism is running a campaign to build a phone for those of us who want to control the devices in our hands instead of having the devices control us. It’s called the Librem 5. The price is 600 USD with free international shipping, which I think is a fair price.

On the current state of mobile

At the moment there are two commercially available options for a phone with some smarts. A phone from a number of companies running Android with Google Experience (at least in the west) or an iPhone from Apple. Out of the box the Android device is slightly better in terms of freedom as the user can enable installing any apps on it. The iPhone is probably better for privacy, but with proprietary software it’s down to trust to believe it really is as they say.

User control is in a pretty terrible state on both as both companies can go in your phone and add or remove software or enable location tracking without your consent. They don’t usually do that, but it’s not a secret that they technically can. Installing software from the Play Store using a web browser or enabling Find My iPhone by definition requires this.

What can you do?

You can get a better experience in today’s market as well. Android phones can be retrofitted with a different operating system. There have been various contenders other than Android, for example: Firefox OS, Ubuntu Touch, Plasma Mobile. Two of the first had companies with budgets working on them but none of them reached a state of working well on any device I had access to.

Why is that? Plasma mobile is a small project and it’s not ready, period. The other two supposedly worked fine on some reference devices. All of these run on devices intended for Android, using the low level parts of Android and substituting their own components higher up the stack.

Android with Google Experience, the operating system you get installed on a phone out of the box is based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). AOSP in turn has the Linux kernel at its core, and Linux is published with the GNU General Public License. This is the crucial reason why you can boot any law abiding phone (not all phones are law abiding, mind you) to a free and open source system. Google hates the GPL, though so that is the only part that guarantees access to sources. Instead of Busybox, there’s Toybox. Instead of glibc, there’s bionic. And therein lies the problem.

Google publishes the source code of AOSP, but for the phone to function, a bunch of additional binary blobs (drivers, firmware, shared libraries) are needed. The Replicant project has gotten some devices mostly working with free software, but even with these old models some parts of the hardware simply can’t be used (important parts, such as WiFi, Bluetooth). For some time I had a Nexus 5 that worked perfectly with LineageOS. Then I dropped it and the screen started displaying exclusively artistic colours.

Google doesn’t do Nexus devices anymore, so I bought a Oneplus 5. The list of proprietary blobs needed is a whopping 773 items long. 773. Out of those 576 are .so-files. Currently I have a version of SlimROM, with media or ringer sound only working through headphones or Bluetooth. A newer weekly has the fingerprint sensor / home button not working. Lineage both as I compiled it and the first weekly enter a boot loop.

Screw that.

Now is the time to vote with your wallet

Now is the time to get to market a device where you don’t have to futz with binary drivers meant for another system with the nightmare that is libhybris. (Really libhybris is better than nothing, I’m glad it exists). A device that comes with a free system, one that can easily run any Linux distro, such as Arch or Debian or Fedora. A project that has a track record of successful launches and a reasonable price (as opposed to Neo900, the previous time I was hopeful).

Google might keep publishing the source code, but it is really the GPL keeping the other OEMs in check. Big companies, like VMware have found it too big an effort to rewrite the functionality of Linux, but there’s no guarantee that’s going to be true in the future. Google is working on Fuchsia to possibly replace Linux. If we want to have software under our control, we need to look into the hardware as well. General purpose hardware with the ability to run any software might be a dying breed if we are not vigilant.

I want the Librem 5 for myself. I want Purism to be successful enough that I can get a replacement device when the first one breaks. It would be great to get the devices to normal people in physical stores, but I don’t think that’s a realistic goal, not yet.

I want the crowd funding campaign to reach 100%. I want the dream to come true.

If you agree or disagree, feel free to tell me and the world in Twitter or in the comments.