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Librem 5: A Privacy-focused Smartphone that Actually Runs Linux?

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Ever since there were Android devices on the market, there has always been a push by the open source community to put Linux on them. Arguably the most successful up to this point was when Canonacle -famous for their Ubuntu OS- turned their flagship operating system into a mobile OS they called Ubuntu Touch. When Canonacle green lit the production of phones designed specifically to use it, the best phone to come out of it was the Meizu Pro 5

The Meizu Pro 5: Ubuntu Edition (above) didn't do so well.

Never heard of it? well, neither has anyone else. Not only was the Ubuntu Touch OS slower than a bottle of molasses dripping down the S.A.T. scores of a BuzzFeed News writer, It was marketed so poorly, you’d think it was being developed by SNK.

The Librem 5

So a full GNU/Linux phone got off to a bad start already, but Purism -a San Francisco based hardware manufacturer- is seeking to keep the dream alive with their successfully crowd-funded project called the Librem 5.

Concept image of the Librem 5 (stolen from the crowdfunding campaign courtesy of me)

Purism describes the Librem 5 smartphone as “the phone that focuses on privacy by design, and security by default.” It runs a in-house developed version of Linux called PureOS, which it says is completely open source, unlike the walled gardens of the Android smartphone market.

Why Linux is better than Android

Some of you might be saying: “Hey, isn’t Android based on linux?” and to be honest, it kind of is, but not really. Android has like two thirds of the Linux Kernel in it, but all the little shell scripts and daemons that make up an entire linux distro are replaced by Google-based stuff like a graphical environment, and kernel extensions made specifically for the system-on-a-chip (SOC) the Android OS needs to have control over your phone.

Unlike real linux, Android is an OS that seems to be hell bent on preventing its users from doing things like gaining root access, or anything involving Administrative privileges. Unlike regular Linux, where all you need to gain root access (Administrator privileges) is type SU or ‘sudo’ in a terminal, then type in a password, Android doesn't even have the SU (super user) command installed by default. You have to download it from some third-party developer onto a computer, boot the phone in fastboot mode, (It’s basically the BIOS of smartphones,) connect it to a real computer via a USB cable, then proceed to basically hack your device in a command line like a Mr. Robot episode, which could easily destroy your phone at the software level if you screw something up.

PureOS is just running Linux. Period. We’re talking about a desktop OS with a GUI designed for a phone. The reason this is a big deal is because, for the longest time, ARM based devices like Android smartphones and tablets have been absolutely abysmal when it comes to productivity software. Most of the ‘mobile’ versions of software have been nothing more than versions of desktop programs more watered down than the ballroom of the Titanic. Some much needed software still doesn’t even exist on mobile devices such as a Digital Audio workstations that don't sound like a children's Yamaha keyboard from the 1980s, or a version of Photoshop that wasn’t designed for someone’s three-year-old. This is exciting -particularly for me- because I might be able to use software like Gimp and Qtractor while at work -or on the road- without having to put up with Google Play Services, in its never-ending quest to beat me over the head with Facebook and Google+ notifications.

Privacy by design, security by default

Although the potential capabilities of the device remains to be seen, one can only hope that a real Linux phone is what the Librem 5 represents. That being said, it clearly isn’t the selling point that Purism is going for here. The company describes the Librem 5 as a “fully standards-based freedom-oriented operating system based on Debian and many other upstream projects”, but Purism is really pushing the privacy and security thing more than anything else. On the product description, Purism describes their phone as a “IP-native mobile handset, using end-to-end encrypted decentralized communication.”

Unlike every other phone on the market, the Librem 5 gives users administrative control over all the hardware in the device. Most other phones don’t allow you to do things like turn off carrier-level GPS tracking or even the front and back-facing camera. Phones sometimes give you the illusion that you’re able to turn things like this off, but you really can’t. Even if you could, you’d be surprised what your own carrier is able to achieve with your phone without your consent. The Libre 5 distinguishes itself by giving you the ability to use switches to cut the power to everything from the cameras to the microphones. Even if your carrier wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to turn these things on without you.

If NSA wiretapping and government deep learning computers mulling over your viewing habits freaks you out, this really is the best possible phone to get at the moment, if the legends hold true.

Librem 5 is supported by Gnome and KDE

The two biggest integrated desktop environments for the Linux ecosystem have both pledged to port their software to the platform. KDE is working with Purism developers to port a version of their experimental Plasma Mobile desktop to the Librem 5.

Gnome Foundation is looking to enlist help from the open-source community to port their Gnome/GTK desktop to the Librem 5, as well as spread the word about the project. In a statement by executive director of GNOME foundation Neil McGovern,

Having a Free/Libre and Open Source software stack on a mobile device is a dream-come-true for so many people, and Purism has the proven team to make this happen

Purism is no stranger to this game

One significant advantage Purism's foray into a Linux smartphone has over Canonacle is it's background. Purism is best known for its privacy and security-focused x86 laptops like the Librem 15, which cater to the Linux power users of the world. Unlike Canonacle, which is primarily a software developer, Purism is no stranger to the hardware scene, meaning they are far less likely to screw this up.

How to get one

Back in September, Purism’s crowd-funding campaign for the Librem 5 reached 144% of its $1,500,000 funding goal, leaving the project $2,174,045 of money to get this project going. Though the phone isn’t available yet, there are plans to release the phone for sale some time in January of 2018. Obviously backers of the crowd-funding campaign will receive the phone before anyone else, but you can pre-order the device from the Purism website by contributing the $599 to the campaign. (yes, they are still taking donations.)

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