by Eric Brown
Purism is crowdfunding a security minded “Librem 5” smartphone that runs Linux on an i.MX6 or i.MX8, and offers a 5-inch screen and privacy protections.
After the death of Firefox OS, the discontinuation of the Ubuntu Phone, and Samsung’s painfully slow rollout of its Tizen phones, the dream of establishing alternative Linux phone platforms not called Android appeared to be heading for the dustbin of history. Lately, however, several new projects have emerged such as the Raspberry Pi Zero based ZeroPhone and Halium OS project.
The latest is Purism’s Librem 5 smartphone. Purism, which offers a Librem line of secure, open source, Intel Skylake based laptops, has now launched a crowdfunding campaign for the Librem 5 smartphone. The $599 phone won’t ship until Jan. 2019. However, a $299 developer kit is expected in June 2018. The company claims to have a manufacturer already signed up — assuming the $1.5 million campaign succeeds within the next two months.
Unlike other phones that offer extensive security features and privacy controls, such as Bittium’s Bittium Tough Mobile, Silent Circle’s Blackphone 2, Motorola Solutions’s LEX L10, Sikur’s GranitePhone, TRI’s Turing Phone, and Sonim’s XP7 Public Safety, the Librem 5 runs Linux instead of Android. Like the Librem laptops, the 5-inch Librem 5 runs a mobile stack based on Purism’s security-minded, Debian-based PureOS Linux distribution. Billed as the world’s first ever IP-native mobile handset, the unlocked phone uses end-to-end encrypted decentralized communication, including encrypted calls, texts, and emails.
The Librem 5 provides open source code, support for VPN services, and hardware kill switches for the camera, microphone, WiFi/Bluetooth radio, and baseband. The baseband supports 2G/3G/4G, GSM, UMTS, or LTE networks. Customers will be able to choose from a full carrier package, a cellular data plan with WiFi, or WiFi only. No carrier partners were listed.
The first version will be capable of voice calling, video, camera, messaging, email, and web browsing. The stack will “expand quickly to include the thousands of productivity, gaming, graphics, and photography applications already in PureOS,” says Purism.
The Librem 5 phone can run PureOS or any other GNU/Linux distro available with open source code on the NXP i.MX6 or i.MX8. The current design calls for a quad-core Cortex-A9-based i.MX6, but this may change to a quad -A53 i.MX8 SoC as the project progresses.
Either design enables the separation of the CPU from the baseband modem, letting the developers “dig deeper and deeper to protect your privacy and isolate components for a strong security hardware stack,” says Purism. PureOS “strives for the strictest of security and privacy protection, by releasing all the source code, and offering safe security and privacy defaults, as well as avoiding common security threats, such as ransomware, and data mining tools,” says the company.
The specs are still under consideration, but currently include the “i.MX6/i.MX8” with Vivante GPU, which on the i.MX6, at least, is supported with the Etnaviv “free software accelerated driver.” There will also be a separate mobile baseband.
The Librem 5 will include 3GB of LPDDR3, plus 32GB eMMC storage and a microSD slot. No resolution was listed for the 5-inch touchscreen. The phone will provide WiFi, Bluetooth 4.x, a SIM slot, and GPS, as well as sensors including accelerometer, gyro, compass, ambient light, and proximity.
Front and back cameras will be included, along with an audio jack, mic, speaker, and volume controls. A USB host port will be available along with a battery, and debug interface.
Librem 5 development kit mainboard
The developer kit due to arrive next June will feature a mainboard, screen, and touchscreen, plus cabling and power supply. Other features will include cellular baseband, WiFi, GPS, sensors, and camera interface.
The PureOS distribution that runs on the Librem laptops is a derivative of Debian GNU/Linux main, and includes a GNOME 3 desktop with the Wayland display protocol. The stack includes a homegrown PureBrowser with the Tor browser, the Duck Duck Go search engine, the EFF Privacy Badger, and HTTPS: Everywhere.
The decentralized encryption available on the Librem 5 is enabled via a partnership with Matrix, which offers an open ecosystem for interoperable encrypted communication that supports over 2 million users with VoIP and Slack-style messaging. The Librem 5 is claimed to be the first Matrix-powered smartphone. The phone will also support HTML5 apps, which are isolated from running applications or any other component of the phone the user chooses to protect.
Although the phone’s software is open source, there is no promise that the hardware will be. “Our intention is to have everything freed down to the schematic level, but have not cleared all design, patents, legal, and contractual details,” says the FAQ. “We will continue to advance toward this goal as it aligns with our long-term beliefs.”
The Librem 5 is available now on Purism’s private crowdfunding page starting at $599 (due Jan. 2019), or $299 for the development kit (June 2018). Bundled offerings with keyboard, mouse, and 24-inch ($1,399) or 30-inch ($1,699) monitors will also ship in Jan. 2019. Volume discounts are also available. More information may be found on the Librem 5 crowdfunding page and the Purism website.