It is hard to know whether Linux/Wayland/GTK+/Phosh (or Plasma Mobile) will become a viable mobile platform, but there are a number of factors that should give us hope that the Librem 5 and mobile Linux will succeed, whereas previous attempts to launch a new mobile OS and app ecosystem failed in the past.
The most important factor is that Purism appears to be a viable company and the company is fully committed to the project and the ideals of free software/hardware and user rights and privacy.
OpenMoko failed because it didn’t have much incoming revenue and the phone never worked well enough to attract more than a couple hundred tinkerers.
Ubuntu Touch failed because Canonical wasn’t fully committed and wasn’t willing to take the risk. It also failed because Canonical had no experience producing hardware and the costs of designing phones was much more expensive in 2013 than they are today. Canonical estimated that it needed $32 million in crowdfunding to make the Touch viable and it only got $12 million, whereas Purism is taking advantage of today’s lower costs of hardware design in Shenzhen, China and only needed $1.5 million in crowdfunding to commit to the Librem 5. Canonical convinced BQ and Meizu to produce a few Ubuntu Touch devices, but they were geared toward the low-end of the market and never reached the enthusiast market.
Firefox OS failed because it didn’t have a viable market. It focused on low-end smartphones that enthusiasts didn’t wanted to buy, and Google destroyed that market when it launched Android One. The typical low-end smartphone buyer wanted all the functionality and apps of Android and doesn’t know enough to value the freedom and technological innovation of Firefox OS based on the open web. Mozilla tried to avoid producing its own hardware and partner with companies which had experience selling phones, but those companies weren’t committed and didn’t promote Firefox OS once Android was redesigned to run on lower spec phones. CaiOS repurposed Firefox OS as an OS for feature phones and IoT, where it has had notable success in countries like India.
Sailfish OS still exists, but it lacks a good hardware company to promote it and it doesn’t have a killer feature to convince users and companies to adopt it.
Samsung’s Bada and Tizen couldn’t compete with Android’s Play Store in terms of the number of apps, and Samsung was only interested in the mass market, so it gave up once it discovered that it couldn’t compete with Android. There was no compelling reason (“killer feature”) to convince developers to create apps for the Bada and Tizen platforms, when Android and iOS were so much bigger markets.
Microsoft’s Windows Mobile / Phone / 10 Mobile failed for similar reasons as Tizen. Like Samsung, Microsoft lost millions developing its own mobile OS and it couldn’t attract very many developers to its platform to develop apps. Microsoft finally hit on the killer feature in Windows 10 Mobile with Continuum, that would allow a phone to be used as a desktop PC, but the idea arrived too late and Satya Nadella had already decided to convert Microsoft into an advertising company like Google and the best way to do that is to get its apps onto Android and iOS, rather than develop its own mobile OS.
Purism avoids many of the pitfalls which caused previous mobile platforms to fail:
Purism has an ongoing revenue stream from the Librem 13/15 to sustain it, unlike OpenMoko, so it is less likely to fail for lack of funds. It has built up experience producing laptops, so it less likely to produce a phone that simply doesn’t work like OpenMoko. If Purism runs into major technical problems with the Librem 5 like the OpenMoko Freerunner experienced, Purism can survive those setbacks and keep going.
The only way for a new mobile OS to emerge in today’s market is for the same company to produce both the hardware and software and to market products with the OS to the right audience. Sailfish OS and Firefox OS failed because they focused on just producing the software, and they didn’t have good hardware partners that were willing to market phones to the right audiences. Canonical failed with Ubuntu Touch because it didn’t have experience designing and selling hardware. Sailfish OS and Firefox OS also failed because they focused on the low-end market, rather than the enthusiast market, so its consumers didn’t appreciate the benefits of an alternative mobile OS and it can’t compete with Android in that market.
A new mobile OS has to have a “killer feature” that will make the early adopters willing to suffer the privations of a new platform. Early adopters of Linux phones have to accept a device which is costly, and has much fewer apps than both Android and iOS. The hardware in the Librem 5 which currently costs $699 will be comparable to a $200 Android phone. It will come initially with 5 apps, compared to 2.6 million in the Google Play Store and under 2 million apps in the Apple Store.
Early adopters of the Librem 5 are willing to pay the extra cost and suffer the lack of apps, because the Librem 5 will have the following killer features that no other company is offering:
- 100% free software and the first phone certified by the FSF
- A tinker’s phone with a circuit board and case which is open hardware.
- True integration to turn a phone into a desktop PC. Samsung Galaxy S has offered this for a while, but Android and its apps are poorly designed for the desktop. It remains to be seen whether Purism can make this work well and it probably won’t work perfectly at first, but Purism won’t require a proprietary dock like Samsung and GNOME is a better desktop OS than Android
- Better security than any other smartphone in the world, with 3 hardware kill switches and a business model and corporate mission based on user rights and privacy which no other company can match. Android and Windows are based on harvesting users’ data and in order to monetize it. iOS is based on locking users into the expensive Apple ecosystem, so it denies rights to its users and provides no transparency. The NSA has secret agreements to access the servers of both Google and Apple and both companies play ball with the Chinese government as well.
Unlike devices running Firefox OS, Tizen, Windows Mobile and Blackberry 10, which required that developers create new software, the Librem 5 will be able to tap into the large number of existing GTK+ applications for Linux and adapt them to work in Phosh with libhandy. Because those applications are free software, an army of enthusiastic volunteers can make this happen, even if the original application developers aren’t willing to do it. In other words, the lack of apps in the PureOS Store may not be a problem for long.
The Librem 5 will tap into a number of enthusiast markets–Linux users, free software advocates, tinkerers and people who need security and privacy. Each of these communities of enthusiasts are willing to pay a premium and endure quite a bit of hassle and privation to use a phone like the Librem 5, which is exactly the kind of customer base that Purism needs to succeed. The Librem 5’s three hardware kill switches have a coolness factor that appeals to enthusiasts. I personally don’t care that much about security, but I’m already anticipating showing off those kill switches to my friends just for their novelty.
We are living in a more favorable context for a new secure mobile OS to arise than previously, because the general public is more aware than ever before of how companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft are monetizing their data and how their privacy is being violated. It will probably be a while before businesses and intelligence agencies which care about security are willing to switch to the Librem 5, but if Purism can demonstrate the basic functionality most tasks that smartphone users need, there could potentially be a sizable business and government market for the Librem 5.
Many device makers would love to get out from under the thumb of Google, so if Linux becomes a viable mobile OS, it may be able to attract a number of phone and tablet makers, which will create a snowball effect. Most phone makers barely break even or even lose money selling Android devices. Google puts heavy-handed restrictions on how they can modify Android and makes them pay for access to Google Mobile Services, so they might be willing to start producing Linux mobile devices which have no restrictions on customization and zero licensing fees if Purism can establish Linux as a viable mobile platform.
Finally, Purism has the advantage that the Librem 5 is vital to the core mission of the company and its CEO and employees are wholly dedicated to it succeeding. Even if the company loses money in the short term, it is clear that Purism sees the Librem 5 as its raison d’etre. In contrast, Ubuntu Touch and Firefox OS were important, but ultimately side projects for Canonical and Mozilla, so they could be dropped when setbacks were encountered.
Unlike Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Samsung’s Bada/Tizen, Purism doesn’t need to reach the mass market in order to be successful. Because mobile Linux is based on a whole ecosystem of free software and a community of enthusiasts, the Purism doesn’t have to develop nearly as much software and can rely of volunteers to do much of its work for it. Purism has much lower development costs than Mozilla and Canonical, because it is not developing nearly as much new code as found in Firefox OS and Unity with desktop convergence.
If Purism sells a couple thousand Librem 5 phones, then it will be a viable business because each phone will have a high margin over its hardware costs, so Purism can survive on a small enthusiast customer base, whereas other companies needed much higher sales to succeed. Simply existing as a viable alternative and establishing the principal of user freedom and privacy will make the Librem 5 a success, even if only a few thousand phones are ever sold. Purism has far more achievable goals than previous companies did, and Purism is unlikely to kill off the Librem 5, even if it only has a small user base.
None of these factors automatically guarantees the success of the Librem 5 and mobile Linux in general, but I think they all give us reasons to be hopeful that this project will succeed, whereas others have failed in the past. Even if Purism ends up going bankrupt, Phosh, libhandy and the rest of the software being developed by Purism are small enough projects that they could be carried on by the community, so we are unlikely to ever be abandoned as users even if Purism doesn’t exist 5 years from now.