We need open source smartphones now more than ever


It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that most of modern life revolves or involves smartphones in one way or another. Even for basic things such as text messaging and phone calls, budget entry-level smartphones have started to replace “dumb” feature phones. It’s not really that hard to understand why. These veritable computers in our pockets are amazing, able to do almost anything and store almost any data, either directly or through the cloud. They are, in a way, the most personal personal computers in existence, which is why it is even more crucial that open source smartphones, or better yet open phones, become more readily available for anyone and everyone.

Old Tune

The desire to have open source, and even open hardware, smartphones isn’t exactly new. Whenever there’s a new wave of devices that comes around, the open source community always ends up wishing there were such a product that not only catered to our wants but was also designed specifically to take our principles into account.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Although definitely not the first, the Openmoko was the one that came closest to succeeding. Launched in 2007, the strange-looking Neo 1973 offered both a Linux operating system for phones as well as the “open source hardware” to run it on. The phone’s launch, as well as that of its successor, the Neo FreeRunner, were marred by delays and shortages but Openmoko still etched a legacy in the Linux and open source history.

Not by coincidence, it was also around that time that (the original) Nokia launched its series of “Internet Tablets”, the N800 and N810, culminating in the N900 and the N9/N950 smartphones. All these ran on Linux and were closer to the desktop version of Linux than Android or even Ubuntu Touch. At the same time, they were not completely open on both hardware and software levels but had enough for the open source community to keep it alive even when the companies behind it have turned to ash.

Of course, some will argue that Android has kept the flame alive through out these years. It is, after all, an open source operating system, right? Depends on who you ask. While the core of Android is indeed open source, the majority of what users experience as Android isn’t, from the hardware binary blobs to Google Play Services.

Image courtesy of SlashGear

Then there were the Ubuntu Touch phones (let’s not mention the Ubuntu Edge, shall we?). Definitely more Linux than Android, it also came close to becoming the open source Linux phone that even consumers could use. Granted, it relied heavily on proprietary Android pieces to actually run on existing consumer phones. Unfortunately, it ended up as a commercial failure, with OEMs quickly losing interest in the platform. It probably didn’t help that Canonical dug itself into a hole with its NIH features.

New Players

Thanks to the availability of affordable hardware components and, of course, open source software, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in open source phones. Those range from DIY Frankensteins built around SBCs like the Raspberry Pi to sometimes shady crowdedfuning campaigns. These proved there is no small amount of interest but not enough to turn it into a sustainable business.

Then along came Purism, who already made a name for themselves with their privacy-oriented Linux laptops. Knowing the role smartphones play in people’s lives today, the startup embarked on a journey to bring their principles and experience to the mobile world. Thus the Purism Librem 5 was born and, more importantly, crowdfunded. Unlike previous attempts, both commercial and crowdfunded, Purism made sure to enlist (and even employ) the help of open source developers and communities. Although the phone continues to be developed, it has hit a few hurdles and delays that, as we’ll see later, any small open source phone maker would run into sooner or later.

The latest addition to this growing roster is Necuno Mobile from a Finnish company “focusing on information security and privacy”. Working with the KDE community to bring Plasma Mobile to the phone, Necuno Solutions a truly open source and secure phone, with the caveat that it will still be using proprietary firmware for certain hardware. That story is just unfolding and there’s no telling yet when the first devices will be commercially available if at all.

Privacy and Security

While earlier attempts at an open source smartphone seemed to revolve around general openness and hackability, these recent endeavors mostly focus on privacy and security. That’s quite telling because it reflects the current situation and growing concern around smartphones being not just gateways to the Internet and services but also backdoors to spies, hackers, and criminals.

Of course, smartphone makers and platform developers will denounce attempts at hacking their products or forcing backdoors in them. They might not be able to do much, however, when governments start breathing down their neck. And we can never really be sure if any of these players, from OEMs to governments to networks, are doing what they claim they’re doing. Not unless people can check the source code and examine the data freely and legally.

With so much of our personal and even professional lives stored in our phones or passing through them, much more than our PCs and Macs, we should be scared at how little control and oversight we have over them. And it’s not just a theoretical scenario, with spam, fraud, hacks, and tracking popping up left and right, regardless of the platform. It’s not just a possibility, it’s already happening.

Longevity

There is one other consideration for open source phones, one that Android users are probably more acutely aware of compared to iOS ones. Most Android phones come with a 2-3 year guarantee of updates, explicit or implied. After that, you’re on your own to fend off security holes left open or outdated and poor-performing software. Apple admittedly does a commendable job at supporting years-old devices, but that can change any time and users can do nothing about it.

An open source phone, at least in theory, wouldn’t have to worry about obsolescence as long as there’s someone willing to update the necessary software pieces. And if one platform no longer works, users would be able to install a different one instead. There is no lock in of any sort. Being able to run any OS on a device, for as long as you want even beyond the device’s support period, is a user’s dream. Unfortunately, it also runs contrary to one of the business models that make creating such an open smartphone, much less selling one, nearly impossible.

Business Matters

While an open source smartphone is a clear win for consumers and software developers, it isn’t just a risk for hardware makers. It is even a loss. It is unfortunate that the smartphone market has evolved in a direction where users are expected to upgrade their phones every two years or so. That may have been fine in the age of the old feature phones, but imagine if you had to buy a new laptop at that rate. Given how smartphones have become as power and as expensive as entry-level laptops, that’s not an unfair comparison.

There are other business practices and expectations that create hurdles for open source smartphones. Startups and visionaries can try designing their own, but component makers and assemblers might not even give you the time of day if you’re not a big company or order by the thousands or hundreds of thousands. And should you be lucky enough to find suppliers and partners, the current market revolves around parts with closed firmware which may not sit well with open source advocates.

Image courtesy of Openmoko

Canonical tried to go the path of least resistance by partnering with OEMs to install Ubuntu Touch on existing devices. That worked to some extent and was a compromise if you don’t mind relying on binary blobs beneath the hood. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long for other reasons and anyone smaller than the Ubuntu maker will find less willing partners to take that risk again.

Many Eyeballs

While a true open source Linux-based phone would be a huge step towards protecting the privacy and security of consumers, let’s also not kid ourselves. It is not a panacea. Like the Linux and open source world at large, security and privacy are not automatic features of open source. Rather, it is open source that enables those features, by allowing developers and users to keep a watchful eye on the code.

In fact, the need for vigilance would be even greater with an open source mobile platform. It will not have the same resources, human or otherwise, that Google and Apple have to throw at screening and vetting everything that goes into the system. Code isn’t always understandable, even to seasoned Linux users. It will be up to the various and sometimes fragmented communities to step up and keep watch over these phones and the software that run on them.

At this point, a true open source smartphone, one where the consumer is protected and is in full control, continues to be a pipe dream. Sure, there are a few new takes that sound promising but, until they deliver, they are just that, promises. And even if they do, they might pale in comparison to more advanced but semi-proprietary phones in the market. The odds do seem stacked against it but open source advocates have always been dreamers and rebels. What these dreams need are a strong show of support and, perhaps, some financial help as well.