Interview In June, Purism started shipping a privacy-focused smartphone called Librem 5 USA that runs on a version of Linux called PureOS instead of Android or iOS. As the name suggests, it’s made in America – all electronics are assembled at the factory in Carlsbad, California, using as many US-manufactured parts as possible.
While previous privacy-focused phones, such as silent circleThe Android-based Blackphone failed to gain much market share, the political situation is different now than it was seven years ago.
Supply chain origin has become more important in recent years, amid concerns about the national security implications of foreign-made engineering equipment. The Librem 5 VS costs something, starting at $1,999, although there are now US government agencies willing to pay that price for homegrown hardware they can trust — and apparently tech enthusiasts too.
We first wrote about the Librem 5 smartphone in 2017, as it is a privacy-oriented device with a Linux operating system. The Librem 5 USA, as noted, tries “wherever possible” to use US companies with US manufacturing. It has a 5.7-inch 720×1440 display with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and a 4,500mAh user-replaceable battery.
The goal is to produce a phone that can be trusted from the hardware to the operating system and apps, something Apple and Google are also talking about.
The register spoke to Todd Weaver, founder and CEO of Purism, about how things are going.
Weaver said Purism is about two weeks away from actually holding inventory and selling phones, which isn’t something the company, which started with crowdfunding, should have done sooner. In the past, people have pledged funds with orders, and it has fulfilled them later; now it builds up inventory pending sale.
“We’re actually moving on to stock holding and driving sales,” he explained. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve never had to do outbound sales.”
The phone, starting at the hardware level, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware
Previously, Weaver said, the company’s growth was the result of incoming requests for its products based on the material it has published about its projects.
“The phone, starting at the hardware level, all the way up to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware,” Weaver says. “It runs on a CPU not normally found in phones.”
That would be a quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 i.MX8M runs at 1.5GHz. Weaver said Purism isolated the device’s baseband modem from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth “so you can actually disable it with a hardware kill switch. That basically becomes the ultimate in security.”
An important thing to realize is that baseband modems are basically small computers that run inside handsets and handle the mobile communications; if a modem is compromised or made to use rogue firmware, it could potentially take over the rest of the device, hence Purism’s desire to isolate it, if the user so wishes. It even has three hardware kill switches: one to turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one for cellular, and one for the microphone and cameras. All three will also disable GPS.
The main printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) is made by Purism in the US, and the microprocessor, from Dutch semiconductor maker NXP, is also made in the United States.
The chip, explains Weaver, “is normally on 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 well. So in every other phone. that created, the baseband modem – the cellular modem – is connected to the memory and the CPU. Essentially, the carriers have firmware access that is lower than the operating system.”
To make the phone secure, Weaver said, purism, to protect privacy and individual freedoms, had to consider hardware-level security and move up.
“There are all kinds of ways that need to be solved,” he said. “We solve it from the hardware, software, applications, data and even services.”
The point, Weaver said, is to be able to just grab the device and have peace of mind and control over your own digital life.
“We started in 2014, initially just crowdfunding laptops,” Weaver says. “My goal was to make phones. But I knew I had to grow because we had to show that we can make devices. We can provide hardware, software and services. Our model is very similar to Apple in that respect – we manufacture hardware and we have an operating system 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 side by side, the iPhone will probably leak about three gigabytes of data without doing anything. devices are worse. Ours leak exactly zero bits – nothing is sent without your explicit interaction, to get weather information or browse the web.”
Research last year suggested Android and iOS beam back telemetry to base even when users opt out of these transmissions, and a complaint was raised in 2020 on what appeared to be Android’s mysterious wireless data transfer.
As we work on phone production with the release of the Librem laptop, mini pcand servers, Weaver explained that his company was refining PureOS, are Linux distribution. “It’s our operating system that doesn’t contain any mysterious code,” Weaver says. “It’s all source code, from the bootloader.”
Purism’s quest against Intel’s Management Engine black box CPU now comes in 14 inches
Purism, Weaver said, has been working on tweaking the PureOS Linux kernel to conserve power when it’s idle.
“A lot of the things Android did to Linux initially, we do to mainstream Linux so we better leave these things idle,” he said. “Basically, it’s a better way to do nothing.”
He also said that the processor leans towards the roasted side. “We pushed really hard with NXP, tweaked a lot of Linux kernel development so we could get that cooler. It’s just the CPU getting hot. The next iteration we’ll probably use I.MX9…that’s still likely two years away.”
Weaver also said the possibility of soldering the current modular modem in place is being considered, which would allow for thinner devices and please government agencies that consider a removable part a security problem.
When asked what kinds of things are possible with a Librem phone that Android and iOS devices don’t offer, Weaver mentioned the way tethering works. Mobile carriers often charge extra for tethering, 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 it’s an easy sell. “I almost have to pull them back to say that, you know, not all your apps will run there,” he said. “It has calling, texting, web browsing, a calculator, but no Snapchat.”
It has calling, texting, web browsing, a calculator, but no Snapchat
Given the advantage Apple and Google derive from their respective app stores, it’s not surprising that Purism is trying to deal with what Weaver calls “the App Gap” — the sheer number of mobile apps currently unavailable on PureOS.
“Initially, we developed many of the core applications,” Weaver says. “We’ve also written a library that allows all existing GNU/Linux based applications to shrink and run on our mobile phone. So by doing that you don’t have to write a new application, it’s just our library, and it now works on the phone.”
It takes some effort, Weaver admitted, and Purism has produced documentation and helped Linux developers modify their existing apps.
Purism is also improving its PureOS Store by partnering with a group that funds intermediate ledgeran open payment network federation.
“We’re actually going to add something to the PureOS Store, which is equivalent to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, where we allow people to charge a subscription or charge an app,” Weaver said. “And then we also have the ability to pay premiums, even for apps that are really needed and that haven’t been developed yet. So basically the solution to fill the App Gap is cash.”
“You have to incentivize developers by saying, ‘Hey, you can get paid,’” he explained. “The ecosystem is growing and actually putting money into that effort. Our business model — by selling hardware at a high enough margin, with services associated with it — allows us to essentially reinvest to fill the App Gap.”
Privacy has always been a tough sell in the tech industry, at least in a mass-market context. But over the past decade, the Snowden revelations about the magnitude of government intelligence gathering, the ongoing privacy scandals, the unrepentant pushiness of the online advertising industry, the pushback of Big Tech and surveillance capitalism, and the ever-present dire state of data security has fueled interest in privacy. Add to that the trade tensions with China and ensuing nationalism in the supply chain, not to mention the competition and privacy regulations popping up in the US, UK and EU, and it seems like an opportunity.
“We don’t make or break any of these issues,” Weaver said, “but by focusing fundamentally on civil liberties, individual liberties and privacy rights, all of those things come to the fore, and as they do, we can see an influx of sales. .”
“We have devices in every letter office in the US and some governments outside the US,” Weaver said. “And those devices can range from air gap laptops to telephones and even telephone 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 year on year by triple digits and even during COVID-19 we had a year of growth,” he explains. “So overall, our revenue has continued to grow. And we’ve grown mostly through revenue, but we’ve also taken on more than $12 million in investments.”
Weaver said the total market available is huge — billions of people have cell phones.
“If you look at someone who cares about privacy rights, or they care about ‘I don’t like Big Tech’ or ‘I don’t like the duopoly of a cell phone in space’ or ‘I don’t like like the break-in’ or I want to promote civil liberties,” each of those areas is a potential customer,” Weaver said. “And those areas are immense. So we didn’t have a question problem. We’ve had a delivery issue from parts to actual availability.
“We probably spend about two years on specific parts to actually produce this device in the US. China is still in short supply. We’ve never had such a lack of interest. We’ll be able to resume the promotion.”