A couple of months ago I received a PinePhone, Manjaro edition (with the Manjaro logo on the back), and have been playing around with regularly since then, mostly updating it (there are regular software upgrades), and testing out software (the catalogue of compatible applications for a smaller portrait, touchscreen-based device is somewhat limited).
It's still in beta, so the software still has usability issues and bugs here and there, but with Manjaro Phosh (which came with the model I ordered), works smoothly, and texts and phone calls also work well.
Why is a Linux phone important?
In a world dominated by Google Androids and Apple iPhones, it's hard for any other product to compete in the smartphone market. Many have fallen by the wayside - Nokia, Microsoft, Blackberry to name a few.
So one question remains - can a lowly Linux phone produced by small companies and enthusiasts even think about competing in a market dominated by giants? This is a question yet to be answered, but what is clear already is that there is a huge, growing community of highly skilled and motivated tech enthusiasts keen to work together to make it special.
If history has anything to teach us, it is that Linux as a adaptable and versatile platform is not to be underestimated. All major corporations have invested time and money either to make use of Linux or to work to improve it, so there is no shortage of financial backing either.
Additionally, due to the transparent nature of open-source software it is constantly scrutinized for security vulnerabilities, malware, backdoors, telemetry, etc.
Driven by you
Relatively new trends in crowdfunding, coupled with thriving enthusiasm within the maker's market, there is certainly no shortage of demand for alternative devices. Especially when those devices fill the criteria of "hackable" and "open source".
When you compare the price of a standard smartphone with a PinePhone, they are pretty similar, although other phones are arguably much more convenient. This convenience comes with costs - often hefty prices that are not made aware to
Libertarian costs: i.e. being large targets for (state-sponsored) surveillance, which can abuse:
Hardware costs: manufacturers coercing users to buy new products every 12 to 24 months, which may be reasonable only as long as:
- Concerns regarding what companies actually do with our data
- The polarising effects of "echo-chamber" social media (that are often pre-installed and non-removable on smartphones) These, and a myriad of other concerns are starting to drive more people towards alternative devices, although this is not the whole story. There are many that would write off privacy concerns as conspiracy theories, or aren't even particularly concerned about long-term support or maintenance - some people simply want to try something different.
PinePhone has the potential to be the answer to all of these motivations, and so much more. It is paving the way both for native Linux to run on a mobile phone format, which has some very interesting potential, not only with Linux, but also in increasing openness and understanding of development for mobile.
There are some additional hidden benefits from open source, which is additional privacy in areas you might not expect...
It's not just the software in applications nad your operating system that can record and store your personal details, but there is increasingly hidden software in chips (firmware) embedded in your computer devices in which you have no control. Additionally, what these hidden programs actually do is not made publicly available, and not easily figured out.
PinePhone developers have made some nice progress to remove some of these hidden programs, and the prospects for a totally open phone are starting to look much better (although updating the firmware may not be for the faint of heart!).
The fun factor
Aside from all the privacy concerns, and even "being in control" that a Linux phone provides, the other great aspect is that it's just fun! You can plug in an adapter with a keyboard, mouse and monitor, and do anything you would with any other computer.
You can also develop software and scripts to enhance your workflow (a single line in the terminal can change the colour of the LED!) easily, and try it out immediately. There is a huge community, and many other developers sharing knowledge and code.
While it may appear daunting if you're used to a more "plug-and-play" type experience, but it can be fun to learn, and there is immediate satisfaction to be had from writing something you can use on your phone.
Some downsides to consider
There are some downsides to a Linux phone like the PinePhone:
- Software is incomplete and some features may not be fully working (although calls and texts are now working fine):
- The camera app is functional and improving, but it's not fantastic
- Some applications aren't designed for a small touchscreen
- The learning curve may be higher than you are used to, and documentation is sparse
- There is a bewildering selection of distributions (different operating systems and environments) to choose from, each with their own pros and cons
Actually, the guy who is developing MegaPixels (the camera app) raised a few pertinent points in his own blog.