Lukasz Erecinski is community manager for Pine64 and a free and open source software enthusiast. All opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of Pine64 or LinuxSmartphones.com.

What would have been inconceivable just a few years ago is now a reality – there are two mainline Linux phones on the market. The PinePhone from Pine64 and Librem 5 from Purism  don’t use old and SoC-specific Android kernels, nor do they rely on binary blobs to enable core device functionality.

While PINE64 and Purism may have been the first to the market with their respective devices, I have reasons to believe they won’t be the last. Interest in these devices is steadily growing and people outside the Linux community are now taking notice. To me it looks like something more than a temporary fad – I don’t want to jinx it, but I think Linux smartphones are here to stay.

Left: Pine64 PinePhone / Right: Purism Librem 5

New opportunities

There are good reasons why a growing number of people are willing to make concessions and use Linux smartphones instead of the more convenient and better spec’d devices running Apple’s and Google’s operating systems. Let me start with the obvious: Linux smartphones offer unparalleled security and prevent user-data from being harvested by large corporations. Aside from the inherent privacy afforded by running open source software, users can also alter and harden their installations to a point that is simply not possible on an Android or iOS device. But you knew this already.

However, security and software-choice sovereignty are just one aspect of these smartphones’ appeal. Late March this year Martijn Braam wrote an article titled Do you really want Linux phones? The article made rounds on the Internet and ended up being heatedly debated.

In his opinion piece, Martijn made a handful of observations, the most important of which, at least in my view, is that these devices provide us a unique opportunity to experiment with the smartphone paradigm.

I share in Martijn’s sentiment that the well trodden path laid down by iOS and Android is only one of many options available to us, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be followed. Don’t get me wrong, I understand those making the argument that efforts ought to be concentrated at fleshing out existing mobile Linux experiences, I really do. It is undeniably true that mobile Linux, whilst still very young, already sufferers from the same fragmentation hurdles found on the desktop.

At the same time, I catch myself asking: if now isn’t the right time to experiment, when will such a time come? As I see it, the modern incarnation of the Linux smartphone dream is in its infancy, and this is exactly the right time to try out new ideas, probe the existing paradigm and ultimately also innovate.

Not taking advantage of the openness of these devices would be a real waste of their potential.

Long-term significance

While I firmly believe that Linux smartphones will go on to carve out a segment in the enthusiast market and thrive in the long-term, it is equally plausible that current devices are stepping stones in a much longer journey. After all, attempts to create a Linux smartphone have already been made in the past.

Thankfully things are different this time around: regardless of what the future holds, present efforts will not be in vain. That’s because even if one of the two companies making Linux smartphone hardware went out of business, it wouldn’t spell doom for software development.

The fact that these devices run mainline Linux means that upstreamed work will be trivial to port to open architectures of the future. Much of the development is also done from the bottom-up, by the community, as opposed to top-down as it has always been the case in previous attempts. Not only has this approach to development propelled mobile Linux projects like never before, but it has also made it much easier to port OSes to other hardware platforms – something which we’re already seeing today.

The importance of community engagement cannot be understated. I see a lot of passionate people, many of them very young, developing experimental software for Linux smartphones. I find it likely that some of them may very well go on to create the ‘next big thing’, shape Linux on mobile in the future and possibly change the direction information technology is heading.

Even if the current devices won’t see large-scale adoption, they are nonetheless invaluable conduits for ideas. I hope the values of openness, privacy and end-user respect propagated by these projects will live on and withstand the harsh realities of mass-market business.

Indeed, if it turns out that this is the legacy of current Linux smartphones, then I am more than content with it.

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