We talk to Purism's CEO about the Librem 5 USA smartphone

We talk to Purism’s CEO about the Librem 5 USA smartphone

Interview In June, Purism began delivering a privacy-focused smartphone called Librem 5 USA, which runs on a version of Linux called PureOS rather than Android or iOS. As the name suggests, it is made in America – all electronics are assembled in its facility in Carlsbad, California, with as many American-made parts as possible.

While previously privacy-focused phones, such as Silent circles Android-based Blackphone failed to gain much market share, the political situation is different now than it was seven years ago.

The origin of the supply chain has become more important in recent years, due to concerns about the national safety consequences of foreign-made technical equipment. The Librem 5 USA costs from $ 1,999, although there are now US authorities willing to pay the price for home-made hardware they can trust – and obviously technology enthusiasts as well.

We first wrote about the Librem 5 smartphone during 2017, considers it a privacy-centric device with a Linux OS. Librem 5 USA, as mentioned, tries to use American companies with American manufacturing “whenever possible.” It has a 5.7-inch screen of 720 × 1440 with 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage and a 4,500 mAh battery that the user can replace.

The goal is to produce a phone that can be trusted from the hardware to the operating system and apps, something that Apple and Google have also been loud about.

The register talked to Todd Weaver, founder and CEO of Purism, about how it goes.

Weaver said that Purism is about two weeks away from actually holding shares and selling phones, which is not something the company, which started with crowdfunding, has previously had to do. In the past, people promised money with orders, and it has later fulfilled them; now it is building stock in anticipation of sales.

“We’re actually going to keep stocks and drive sales,” he explained. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve never had to do outbound sales.”

The phone, to start at the hardware level and up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware

In the past, Weaver said, the company’s growth has been a result of incoming inquiries about its products based on the material it has published about its projects.

“The phone, to begin with at the hardware level and up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware,” said Weaver. “It runs on a CPU that is not normally found in phones.”

It would be a quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 i.MX8M running at 1.5 GHz. Weaver said that Purism isolated the device’s baseband modem from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth “so you can actually turn it off with a hardware switch. It’s basically the ultimate in security.”

An important thing to realize here is that baseband modems are in fact small computers that run in handsets and handle the mobile communication; if a modem is compromised or made to run rogue firmware, it can potentially take over the rest of the device, hence Purism’s desire to isolate it, if the user so desires. In fact, it has three hardware switches: one for turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one for mobile and one for microphone and cameras. All three will also turn off GPS.

The main circuit board device (PCBA) is manufactured by Purism in the USA, and its microprocessor, from the Dutch semiconductor manufacturer NXP, is also manufactured on the state side.

The chip, Weaver explained, “is normally found in airplanes, in commercial devices and in cars. It’s a quad-core CPU. But the reason we had to do that was because we wanted to insulate properly. So in all other phones it is manufactured is the baseband modem – the cellular modem – connected to memory and CPU. Basically, operators have access to firmware that is lower than the operating system. “

To make the phone secure, Weaver said, to protect privacy and individual freedoms, Purism had to consider hardware-level security and go up in the stack.

“There are all sorts of ways that need to be solved,” he said. “We solve it from hardware, software, applications, data and even services.”

The point, Weaver said, is to just be able to take the device and have peace of mind and control over your own digital life.

“We started in 2014, initially just crowdfunding laptops,” Weaver said. “My goal was to produce phones. But I knew I had to increase because we had to show that we can make devices. We can make hardware, software and services. Our model is very similar to Apple in that respect – we produce hardware and we have an operating system that is married to it, so that it works.

“And then we also include services that fully respect you. If you had an iPhone or an Android phone and a Purism phone like Librem 5 sitting next to each other, the iPhone will probably leak about three gigabytes of data without doing anything. “Android devices are worse. Ours will leak exactly zero bits – nothing is sent without your explicit interaction, to request weather information or surf the web.”

Research last year suggested Android and iOS beam back telemetry to base even when users deselect these transmissions, and a complaint was taken up in 2020 over what appeared to be Android’s mysterious wireless data transmissions.

While working on phone manufacturing with the launch of the Librem computer, mini PCand servers, Weaver explained that his company was refining PureOS, its Linux distribution. “It’s our operating system that has no mystery code in it,” says Weaver. “It’s all source code, from the bootloader and up.”

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Purism, Weaver said, has been working to modify the PureOS Linux kernel to save energy when inactive.

“Many of the things that Android initially did with Linux, we do to mainline Linux, so that we can actually have these things inactive better,” he said. “Basically, it’s a better way to do nothing.”

He also said that the processor tends towards the toasty side. “We worked really hard with NXP, modified a lot of Linux kernel development, so we could get it cooler. It’s just that the CPU is running hot. Next iteration we will probably use I.MX9 … it’s still probably two years away. “

Weaver also said it was considering the possibility of soldering the current modular modem in place, which would enable thinner devices and would please government agencies who see a removable component as a security issue.

When asked what things are possible with a Librem phone that Android and iOS devices do not offer, Weaver quoted how internet sharing works. Mobile providers often charge extra for internet sharing, but with a Librem 5 phone, data is just data. He also pointed to disk encryption with user-controlled keys and chat applications that can handle multiple protocols, such as SMS, MMS, XMPP and Matrix.

For people who want an alternative to Android or iOS, Weaver said that it is an easy sale. “I almost have to back them up to say that, you know, not all of your apps will run there,” he said. “It has calls, text messages, web browsing, a calculator, but not Snapchat.”

It has calls, text messages, web browsing, a calculator, but not Snapchat

Given the benefits that Apple and Google get from their respective app stores, it’s not surprising that Purism is trying to handle what Weaver calls “App Gap” – the large number of mobile apps not available on PureOS at the moment.

“Initially, we developed many of the core applications,” says Weaver. “We also wrote a library that allows all existing GNU / Linux-based applications to shrink and run on our mobile phone. So by doing so, you do not have to write a new application, just include our library, and it will now to work on the phone. “

It takes a bit of effort, Weaver admitted, and Purism has developed documentation and helped Linux developers customize their existing apps.

Purism is also improving its PureOS Store by partnering with a funding group Interledgeran open federation system for payment networks.

“We’ll actually add the PureOS Store, which is similar to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, where we allow people to charge a subscription or charge for an app,” said Weaver. “And then we also have the opportunity to pay out prize money even for apps that are really needed and that are not yet developed. So basically the solution to fill the app slot is cash.”

“You have to encourage developers by ‘Hey, you can get paid,'” he said. “The ecosystem is actually growing and actually investing money in that effort as well. Our business model – by selling hardware with a sufficiently high margin, having services that are connected – allows us to reinvest in principle to fill the gap.”

Confidentiality has always been a tough sale in the technology industry, at least in mass market contexts. But over the past decade, Snowden revelations about the extent of government information gathering, ongoing privacy scandals, the online advertising industry’s incessant intrusion, withdrawal from Big Tech and surveillance capitalism, and the ever-sad state of data security have increased interest in privacy. Add to that trade tensions with China and the nationalism in the supply chain that has followed, not to mention competition and integrity regulations emerging in the US, UK and EU, and it looks like an opportunity.

“We do not-or-break any of these issues,” Weaver said, “but by basically focusing on civil liberties, individual liberties and privacy rights, all of these things emerge, and when they do, see an influx. of sales. “

“We have units in all the post offices in the United States and some governments outside the United States,” Weaver said. “And these devices can range from laptops with air gaps, to phones and even phone services.”

Weaver declined to discuss Purism’s financial situation in detail, but said the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign raised $ 2 million.

“Since then, we have grown by three figures from year to year and even during covid-19 we had a growth year,” he explained. “So overall, our sales have continued to increase. And we have grown mostly from revenue, but we have also taken on north of $ 12 million in investments.”

Weaver said the total available market is huge – billions of people have cell phones.

‘When you look at someone who cares about privacy rights, or they care about’ I do not like Big Tech ‘or’ I do not like the duopoly a mobile phone space ‘or’ I do not like intrusion, or I would like to promote civil liberties, “Each of these areas is a potential customer,” said Weaver. “And those areas are huge. So we have not had any demand problem. We have had a delivery problem, from parts to actual availability.

“We probably lost about two years on specific parts to actually manufacture this device in the US. China still has a shortage. We’ve never had that shortage of interest. Once we get to the point of actually keeping stock, then we’ll to be able to resume marketing. “

So soon. ®

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