Purism Is Doing It Right
We’re officially in the third quarter of 2019, and you know what that means: Purism could start shipping the Librem 5 any day now. I pre-ordered this phone almost two years ago on its crowd funder, and the anticipation has been mounting ever since.
A lot of the hype around this phone is due to Purism’s consistent marketing, which has been derided by some as unsubstantiated. However, I think there’s a lot to be truly excited about.
Breaking the Duopoly
Since the emergence of the smartphone, the market has been dominated by the Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Apple have grown their platform slowly but precisely, leaning on high price points and vendor lock-in to make their margins. The Android platform has traded privacy and quality to meet lower price points.
The situation obviously works well enough for a lot of people: according to bankmycell.com, over 70% of Americans have a smartphone, and I can tell you from personal experience that mobile app developers are in high demand, indicating a thriving ecosystem.
However, there are some obvious problems with this duopoly. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that there are no open-source choices. (Yes, I know Android is open source, but Google have been steadily replacing its open-source components with proprietary ones for years, and without custom ROMs, it’s impossible to avoid Google’s proprietary spyware.)
Why is an open-source mobile OS important? Privacy. We compromise on our privacy basically every time we log onto the internet, but now that the internet is in your pocket/purse, we’re compromising our privacy literally 24⁄7. This is a bridge too far, even for the average user. The problem is, we don’t have a viable alternative.
There have been many contenders to challenge Google and Apple, and some have even been open-source, but none have managed to claim a significant enough portion of the market to make money. It’s expensive to develop an entire operating system and application ecosystem. They simply can’t compete.
Purism is taking a different tack than others who have come before them in two crucial respects:
- They manufacture their own hardware
- They leverage the existing Linux desktop ecosystem as much as possible
Making their own hardware is important because that will minimize time their developers spend reverse-engineering drivers and maximize time they spend developing the user-facing applications and interface. Apple takes this same strategy, and I’m sure it’s a big reason why their products so famously just work™.
The second point, in my opinion, is the most crucial factor in Purism’s viability and sustainability. Leveraging the existing Linux desktop ecosystem will solve the biggest hurdle to new entrants into the mobile market: growing an ecosystem of third-party apps.
Take Ubuntu Touch as an example. In order to try to deliver their mobile OS, Canonical built their own display server/compositor (Mir), desktop environment (Unity 8), and a host of brand new mobile-centric applications to run on it. That’s much too large a burden for Canonical to shoulder!
The landscape for Purism today looks quite different than it did for Canonical when Ubuntu Touch was being born. Wayland implementations are solid. GNOME and KDE both have good touch support they developed for tablets.
But beyond that, Purism has a fundamentally different philosophy for how to build their platform than Canonical did:
Purism will write their code upstream first, wherever possible.
Rather than building a brand new application to have email on your phone, just make an existing email client responsive for mobile form factors! Don’t write a new clock app just for the phone: use GNOME Clocks! It’s already there! The Linux Desktop ecosystem has apps for almost everything, and usually the UI would be the only reason you couldn’t use the app on a phone.
It’s a lot easier to make an application run at small sizes than it is to develop a new application from scratch to do the same things. That’s what Purism does. Then they push their changes back upstream so everyone can benefit.
That’s why I’m still excited, two years later, about the Librem 5. Purism is doing right. And even if the phone doesn’t succeed, the Linux community will be better off for their efforts anyway.