Mobility

Why nobody's made a successful Linux-based phone yet

A new Linux-based smartphone has been announced and Jack Wallen reacts with why he believes the Librem 5 could suffer under the shadow of Ubuntu's phone failure.

purismhero.jpg
Image: Jack Wallen

Remember the Ubuntu Phone? Probably not. Why? Because no matter how hard Canonical worked on the device, no matter how much of their resources they threw at it (at the expense of the desktop that made them famous), they simply couldn't get it to work. It wasn't only because the platform was destined to fail out of the gate (the very idea of Scopes was the wrong way to go), but that they couldn't get the backing of a major market. Instead, they were relegated to underpowered hardware crafted by unknown OEMs. Under normal circumstances, that would have been fine. After all, at one point the likes of OnePlus, Huawai, and Miezu were all unknown. But couple that obscurity with an operating system that further hobbled the hardware and you have the makings for absolute failure.

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And fail it did.

But now it seems there's another company attempting to bring about a Linux phone. The company is Purism and, according to their crowdfunding campaign, the idea is to create a device that can run any Linux distribution. Out of the box, the phone is said to run PureOS (a distribution of Linux for a digital life). If you don't like PureOS, you can install Ubuntu, or Fedora, or Elementary OS. That's right, run your distribution of choice on the Librem 5.

Before I go any farther, it should be noted that of their $1.5 million crowdfunding goal, the company has only raised $186,801 (with 49 days to go—as of this writing). That's a short stretch of time to raise significant funding.

The big question for me

So you have a device that can be used with any Linux distribution; that begs a very simple question—how would the phone make calls? Last I checked, Ubuntu, Fedora, Elementary OS, Linux Mint, Arch Linux...none of them included the ability to make calls out of the box.

Purism's answer is to create the world's first IP-native calling device. What does that mean? Simple. The Librem 5 is meant to be used for Voice Over IP (VoIP) calls (more on that in a bit). That, of course, means you would have to be connected to a wireless network to place those calls—or so one would think. According to the Pureism support forums, the Librem 5 will still be able to handle regular phone calls, as it will have support for a SIM card built in. However, this begs I return to my original question: What happens if a user installs a different Linux distribution on the device? Some distributions do actually allow you to set up a SIM network, but it's tricky. In order to set up such a connection, the user would need:

  • Broadband providers's name
  • Broadband billing plan name
  • Broadband billing plan Access Point Name (APN)

Granted, anyone planning to install a full Linux distribution on this mobile device will likely know how to get that information. Even so, no regular user will want to have to set up a carrier network on their device.

The specs

Before I go any further, let's take a look at the currently proposed specs for the Librem 5.

  • Display: 5″ touchscreen
  • CPU: i.MX6/i.MX8
  • GPU: Vivante
  • Separate mobile baseband
  • RAM: 3GB LPDDR3
  • Storage: 32GB eMMC
  • MicroSD slot
  • Front and back camera
  • WiFi 802.11
  • Bluetooth 4
  • USB Type-C
  • Sensors: GPS, Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Compass, Ambient Light and Proximity

So we have mid-range specs on a device to be running Linux. That should sound quite familiar (cough cough...Ubuntu Phone). If you ever experience of using one of the two Ubuntu Phones that were released, you know exactly what I mean when I say that lack of power will kill the platform the second it's released. Unless the Librem 5 sports flagship-level hardware, there's no way it succeeds. No way.

The good

It has to be said, this isn't a Ubuntu Phone, running a poorly designed and executed Ubuntu Touch. The Librem 5 is listed as shipping with PureOS—a much more traditional platform than Ubuntu Touch. That means the device could effectively be quite productive. Imaging your smartphone containing full-blown productivity tools. LibreOffice, The GIMP, Audacity, your browser of choice...that could be very enticing for business users.

And we cannot forget that using VoIP, the Librem 5 will be capable of defaulting to secure, encrypted IP calls. That's a big plus. On top of that, any user with an understanding of how Linux works, could easily harden their phone such that it would enjoy a level of security not found on traditional devices.

Another plus is that PureOS didn't attempt to reinvent the desktop. Instead, they opted to go with a pretty standard flavor of GNOME (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

The default PureOS desktop with the Dash opened to reveal a minimized LibreOffice Writer.

GNOME is a great choice for a mobile interface, as it was designed, at the start, with touchscreens in mind. This also means true multitasking on a mobile device, not pseudo-multitasking (as we have with both Android and iOS), can be a reality. Who wouldn't want that?

The bad

It cannot be left unsaid that any company attempting to go up against the likes of Android or iOS is facing a fairly serious uphill battle. These two platforms own the mobile space and will give no quarter. Ask any startup attempting to get a competing product off the ground. Because of this, the Librem 5 will be niche at best. Why? There's simply no room in the mobile landscape for anything but the big two; both Google and Apple are too deeply entrenched in the market.

That doesn't mean it's an impossible task; but the probability of much success is fairly slim.

It also doesn't help that the device isn't slated to ship until 2019. Remember those mid-ranged specs above? I'd imagine those specs will have shifted down toward the low end of the spectrum by then. To that end, why bother printing specs that will clearly (and quickly) be dated?

Finally, call quality. I've used Skype and other VoIP solutions quite a lot over the years and the call quality rarely (if ever) comes close to that of a standard carrier call. Calls drop, hiccup, or are woven into a fabric of static. Such issues don't plague standard calls. So unless you purchase your Librem 5 and set up a SIM, you're going to be facing lesser quality calls on a regular basis. That's not a reflection on PureOS, but on the state of VoIP calling. To that end, I would like to think Purism would go out of their way to make inserting and using a SIM to be as plug and play as they possibly can.

I want this to happen

I do; I really want the Librem 5 to succeed. But after having gone through the disaster that was the Ubuntu Phone, you'll have to pardon my skepticism. Even so, I want this phone to enjoy great success. I think the mobile landscape would greatly benefit from having a pure Linux phone available. If that is to happen, I cannot imagine a company better suited to make it so than Purism.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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