Why the $150 PinePhone is not ready to replace my Android device

Longtime open source advocate Jack Wallen applauds PINE64, but he argues the PinePhone is nothing but a pet project without Linux.

mobile smartphone in electronic store

 

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The PinePhone--mention that device to any Linux and open source enthusiast, and you'll see their face light up with possibility. Mention that same device to anyone outside that realm, and you'd be lucky to get a shrug. 

For those who don't know, PINE64 has been working on an open source smartphone that can run nearly any flavor of Linux. But this isn't just vaporware or a pipe dream--units have begun to ship. The units are called the BraveHeart edition, and they are something special.

But special isn't always a good thing.

Let me explain. 

SEE: Linus Torvalds' greatest hits: A retrospective of the Linux kernel founder's impact on technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

If your were one of those who ordered a BraveHeart edition PinePhone, here's what you're getting:

  • Display: Resolution: 1440×720 pixels, 18:9 ratio
  • OS: Various open source mainline Linux or BSD mobile OSes
  • Chipset: Allwinner A64
  • CPU: 64-bit Quad-core 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex A-53
  • GPU: MALI-400
  • Internal flash memory: 16GB eMMC
  • System memory: 2GB LPDDR3 SDRAM
  • Expansion: micro SD Card support SDHC and SDXC, up to 2TB
  • Main camera: Single 5MP, 1/4″, LED Flash
  • Selfie camera: Single 2MP, f/2.8, 1/5″
  • Loudspeaker: Yes, mono
  • 3.5mm jack with mic: Yes, stereo
  • LTE-FDD: B1/ B2/ B3/ B4/ B5/ B7/ B8/ B12/ B13/ B18/ B19/ B20/ B25/ B26/ B28
  • LTE-TDD: B38/ B39/ B40/ B41
  • WCDMA: B1/ B2/ B4/ B5/ B6/ B8/ B19
  • GSM: 850/900/1800/1900MHz
  • WLAN: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, single-band, hotspot
  • Bluetooth: 4.0, A2DP
  • GPS: Yes, with A-GPS, GLONASS
  • Worldwide, Global LTE bands

This device only costs around $150 USD, but the devil is in the details. This line item is important to note:

  • OS: Various open source mainline Linux or BSD mobile OSs.

This means, very simply, that people who ordered the BraveHeart edition are getting a smartphone without an OS. In other words, you get the phone, and then you flash whatever OS you want on the device. Now, here's the kicker: Not every Linux OS will work on a smartphone device. Whatever distribution you choose to install must support the small displays and, more importantly, SIM cards. Without SIM card support, you'll wind up with a fancy, tiny computer on your hands without the ability to make phone calls.

Now, that's all fine and good because the BraveHeart edition is considered nothing more than a developer edition. In fact, the store page for the PinePhone clearly states:

  • The "BraveHeart" Limited Edition PinePhones are aimed solely for developer and early adopter. More specifically, only intend for these units to find their way into the hands of users with extensive Linux experience and an interest in Linux-on-phone.
  • The "BraveHeart" Edition PinePhone does not come with default OS build installed, user needs to install their owns favorite build. Most of the OS builds are still in beta stage.

PINE64 makes the purpose of the BraveHeart edition very clear, but I think that brings about some serious concerns.

SEE: This Linux smartphone is now shipping for $150 (ZDNet)

The platform

In order for the PinePhone to succeed, it'll have to chip away at a very challenging market, which includes the Android OS with nearly 90% global market share. That's a daunting task and to attempt that by selling devices without an operating system is a mistake.

Why? The platform is the thing.

Hardware is nothing without a platform. Android devices would be worthless to the community at large without Android. Apple phones wouldn't be nothing but chips and screens without iOS. The PinePhone is nothing but a pet project without Linux.

I realize what PINE64 is trying to do--or at least I think I do. The company is releasing the hardware with the hopes that all distributions will pick them up and start developing for them, such that every Linux distribution will offer a flashable image for the device. Why? So, in the end, it can sell devices to consumers that most Linux distributions will work on.

There's one glaring error in that logic: The idea that consumers would be willing and/or able to flash a flavor of Linux onto the hardware. That's not going to happen with the general public. The masses want to purchase their phones and be able to use them out-of-the-box. The masses aren't Raspberry Pi devs and tinkerers who love the challenge of piecing together their devices like Victor Frankenstein in his lab.

Consumers want a platform, not an ideology. 

Don't get me wrong, I love what PINE64 is doing, and I think more companies should follow in its footsteps. I have been a champion of open source since 1997, and I will continue to be one until my mind is mush and my fingers can no longer type. But for this to work out, PINE64 needs to make its intentions clear. To that end, I have questions:

  1. Will PINE64 eventually settle on an OS to ship its devices with?
  2. Is PINE64's intent to require the user to pick an OS and install the platform themselves?
  3. What kind of support will PINE64 offer  consumers who are unsuccessful at installing an operating system?
  4. Will PINE64 be selling both consumer (with OS) and developer (without OS) editions of the device?

The answers to these questions are important. I do believe that what PINE64 is doing is not only a very good, but an important thing. I reached out to PINE64 for answers to the above questions, and here's what they had to say in response:

  1. In the future, PinePhones will ship with different OSs. We will make OS-specific PinePhone batches, proceeds from which we will donate to the OS which the PinePhone will ship within a given batch. We will also, in all likelihood, customize the back-plate of the phone for each OS (orange for Ubuntu Touch, green for postmarketOS, blue for KDE Neon, etc.,).
  2. Currently, for the BraveHeart batch, yes. In the future, PinePhones will ship with an OS; that said we implicitly assume that most users will opt to distro hop until eventually they settle on something that works for them.
  3. We find it unlikely that users--even inexperienced ones--will have issues installing and trying out OSs on the PinePhone. Anyone who can flash an OS to a single board computer won't have an issues with getting the PinePhone going. As for support, there is the 'newbie' section on our Wiki, we also have an OS installer - which will eventually have PinePhone OS images--and a large community willing to help newcomers.
  4. We are in talks with different partner projects regarding their readiness to ship an OS on the PinePhone; which project will deliver a feature-complete OS build first still remains to be seen. Eventually, however, all OSs will ship with the PinePhone at one point in time or another.

We need an open source mobile option. But in order for it to succeed, the PinePhone needs to be released as an entire platform, complete with functioning operating system. If PINE64 only ever releases a phone without an operating system, it will fail to gain enough traction to continue moving forward. According to PINE64's answers, this is exactly what the company plans on doing. When this will come to fruition is anyone's guess.

In the end, there are still questions looming over the PinePhone. Which is, of course, a bit disconcerting. This is such a solid endeavor, one that has already accomplished more than a lot of people anticipated. But until an actual phone is shipped, complete with a fully-functioning OS, the PinePhone is still a pet project for enthusiasts and will be lucky to break a 1% market share. 

I hope I'm wrong about this, but after following the world of mobility for as long as I have, holding out for an alternative to either Android or Apple has become an exercise in futility. An open source smartphone on the market would be great for keeping both Android and Apple from getting complacent. More than that, Linux has so much to offer the world of mobility--it would be a shame if this project failed to ship a finalized product.

However, we are a long way off from seeing that open source mobility option be fully realized. I have my fingers crossed for the PinePhone. The second that PINE64 ships a device with a fully-functioning OS, I'll purchase one. 

Until then, I'll have to stick with Android as my daily driver.

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