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September 27, 2020

Why I think GNU/Linux is important for mobile devices.

As you are probably aware by now depending on how much you follow me on this website, on Mastodon, on Twitter, or anywhere else in the free software world, you are probably acutely aware that I am also championing Linux phones and doing my own development on some of my own Linux phone projects. There are so many reasons why I think devices running mainline Linux, like the PinePhone by Pine64 and the Librem 5 by Purism, are so important for mobile choices these days. So much so, that I started another website dedicated to covering this very topic, and that site is called FOSSphones. Feel free to check it out if you are interested in the topic. I usually try to cover some of the biggest developments in the world of Linux phones every week on that site.

Why not Apple's iOS or Google's Android?

The problem with iOS and running Android with Google Apps is that these devices are running closed-source software that you cannot audit. You have to take the company at its word that the devices aren't doing any sort of spying on you, and as we have learned, history is against these companies when it comes to finding out that our devices compromise our privacy. You have to sign into an account before you can even begin using the device, and in the case of iOS, you can't even download anything from the internet on the device, and every single app you download has to come from one source: The Apple App Store.

At least with Android, you do have a bit more of an option. Thanks to custom ROMs, if the bootloader of your device is unlockable and you have some technical knowhow, you can fully replace what type of operating system you are running on the device, allowing you to flash custom AOSP (Android Open Source Project) ROMS with no Google Services or apps (also known as Gapps, or Google Apps). Your choices of ROMs will depend on your device, but you will find most of the popular handsets are covered by custom ROMs such as LineageOS, Resurrection Remix, or another of your choice. With Android devices, you are also free to use your choice of app store. Don't like Google Play Store? You can use F-Droid (a free and open source app distributor for Android), APKMirror, or something else entirely.

Enter Linux phones.

Custom, degoogled Android ROMs are great choices for privacy, but choosing a Linux phone takes it a step further. A Linux phone like the PinePhone or the Librem 5 offer you largely the same choice of software as your GNU/Linux desktop operating system, though you should keep in mind that most apps for desktop Linux will not look that great on a Linux phone right now, or even function properly, thanks to not being scaled to the correct sized screen or being optimized for touch. You should keep in mind that true mobile Linux is still in its infancy, but we are seeing huge strides in development thanks to OS projects like Ubuntu Touch, Mobian, PostmarketOS, and several others. You have complete operating system freedom on a Linux phone, allowing you to distro hop between systems on your mobile device just as easily as you would on your computer. Just swap out the SD card and you are good to go.

Another bonus to current Linux phones is their privacy considerations on the hardware front. Both the PinePhone and the Librem 5 contain hardware killswitches that allow the user to turn off the Wifi and Bluetooth radios, the front and rear cameras, and the cellular baseband. They also contain removeable batteries, so you can easily take out and swap batteries on the fly if you need to. In an age where phone manufacturers are removing basic user access to the internals of the phones, I am so glad that Pine64 and Purism are not lessing user freedom.

What is the future of Linux phones looking like?

The mobile Linux community is amazing, with many different people in many different camps working hard to bring daily-driver level functionality to the devices that their mobile Linux distributions currently support. Right now, the main device focused on this front is the PinePhone, and I hope to see many more follow, as I am using my PinePhone more and more these days, as well as building some of my own mobile Linux software that I hope to have ready for Phosh-based mobile distros rather soon. I honestly don't see it going anywhere but up, as the community is working together to achieve the vision of solid, stable, and functional mobile Linux distributions. That is one of the other great things about this new phenomena in the world of mobile phones--while some of the different operating system projects are technically competing against each other, they are also all working on the same vision and the same goal.

All of us currently working on building projects, applications, and software for these devices are contributing our own building blocks to the same ivory tower, and I can't wait to continue to see how it goes as time goes on. While I know mobile Linux distributions are not going to overthrow the Apple and Google mobile duopoly anytime soon, this great interest in mobile Linux and the vibrant community that has assembled around it is proof enough that there is demand for freedom in the mobile computing space, and I think all of our efforts in bringing Linux phones to the masses is going to be a huge step in making it happen.

Linux phone resources.

Here are some great resources for learning more about mobile Linux devices, some of the FOSS platforms being built around these devices, and general news regarding this topic:

Learn more about Linux phone hardware!

Learn about some of the mobile Linux distributions that are making themselves known on the scene.

Learn about the Linux phone desktop environments.

Here are some valuable resources where you can keep up with the latest happenings in the Linux phone world.

What do you think?

If you are concerned at all about how two companies are effectively controlling our digital lives, then you might be someone who could benefit from a Linux phone. Even if you don't use a Linux phone and you are worried about your online privacy, you should at least consider using a degoogled Android device running something like LineageOS. This way, you have all of the benefits of running an open source and privacy respecting device with no Google or Apple spying. You might even find the battery life of your device will improve dramatically without all of that Google services junk running in the background.

At the end of the day, while I love my degoogled Android devices and still use them as we continue to see Linux mobile devices reach even higher stages of maturity I am ready for the day I can fully use my PinePhone as my daily driver. I can almost do this, except for a couple of Android applications I still use regularly. Thanks to my Linux mobile devices, I can feel comfortable knowing I am in control of my device instead of Apple or Google, I get all of the benefits of Linux with it, and I can even develop and test applications and scripts all on the same device. Can your iPhone or Android do that?

Didn't think so! ;)