Pine64 has released some of the most interesting hardware aimed at open source enthusiasts in recent years, not necessarily because it’s the best hardware available, but because it’s cheap. PinePhone prices start at $150. The PineBook Pro Linux laptop sells for $220. And the PineTime smartwatch is just $27.

Part of the reason Pine64 can take this approach is that the company doesn’t develop software in house… instead relying on a community of volunteers to basically create the code that makes its products work. But over the past year a growing number of folks in that community appear to have become disgruntled with some of the choices the company has made.

PinePhone Pro

This week postmarketOS developer Martijn Braam, developed of the Megapixels app that now ships with most mobile Linux distributions that can run on the PinePhone, announced that he would no longer be working on software for Pine64 products*, citing growing frustration with the company.

In Braam’s telling, things really began to go south when Pine64 stopped shipping Developer Editions of the PinePhone (which had each shipped with a different operating system such as Ubuntu Touch, postmarketOS, and Mobian) and instead chose Manjaro to be the default operating system that would ship with all PinePhone devices moving forward.

The problem isn’t selecting a default so much as picking one that doesn’t seem to play well with others and which doesn’t do much original development to further the state of Linux software for the PinePhone and PinePhone Pro. Manjaro is also now said to be the only mobile Linux distribution to receive financial support from Pine64.

Meanwhile things came to a head for Braam over friction between Pine64 and the developer community over whether to include an SPI flash chip on the PinePhone Pro and PineBook Pro that could be loaded with the Tow-Boot bootloader, making it easy for users to load the operating system of their choice.

Because of Braam’s prominence in the Pine64 developer community, the company issued a response… but it’s one that doesn’t address all of the issues raised by Braam (or others), and which has left a sour taste in the mouth of some*.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect Pine64 to be everything to everyone in the free and open source software community. But as a company that relies heavily on volunteers to make its products actually work, it seems like its in Pine64’s best interest to either address some of the concerns raised… or perhaps to start doing some software work in-house.

But if the company were to do that, it’s unlikely that we’d continue to see dirt cheap hardware like $150 smartphones. Rival Purism, for example, has done a lot of work to make GNU/Linux software work on smartphones. But the company’s Librem 5 smartphone currently sells for $1299 and up.

*I’d highly recommend clicking the links with asterisks to read Braam’s post, Pine64’s response, and articles from TuxPhone and Drew DeVault for more context. 

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10 replies on “Is Pine64’s open hardware losing its luster?”

  1. This is why I still have problem with community-driven solutions as it won’t be viable. The Librem 5 is not cheap, but you can tell Purism is working their hats off to get it right. You need someone like Purism who make the software while at the same time let people work as a community to fix any problems happening to the software.

    1. Of course, you can argue that their approach isn’t viable either because they should have declared bankruptcy over their refusal to process refunds and the Librem 5 still has a lot of problems with dropping phone calls.
      One organization trying both approaches at once, on the other hand, might have been able to pull off something that doesn’t make me nervous in the time they’ve had, but then there are other obstacles to widespread acceptance (i.e. people not thinking you’re an idiot for using a linux phone).
      Quite frankly, regulatory rules need to change. Cell carriers shouldn’t be allowed to sell phones anymore and need to allow any modem that supports their frequency bands and standard encoding protocols. And designers of ARM CPUs used in consumer devices need to be forced to conform to the Systemready standard. And Apple needs to be forced to develop a fully featured iMessage client for other operating systems, because no amount of rules is going to stop stuck-up jerks from seeing green bubbles as subhuman filth.
      And this all needs to happen before the government or some private consortium decides that phones running something other than Android/iOS are something only vile, evil, [insert acceptable target here] would use and ban or de-facto ban everything else.

  2. Undoubtedly, Pine64 have made a significant and positive contribution to the industry. Riffing on their boards was astute : the SBC becoming a PC, a laptop and a phone. They’ve seemingly sprinted way ahead of the competition. But what they appear to demonstrate, is that the hardware component is actually the relatively easy bit of computing : the software is the difficult and time consuming bit. I don’t know whether that’s really true or not.

    However, Pine64 have been rather disingenuous – marketing their very reasonably priced developer kit as suitable for techies and open source enthusiasts when, in reality, the devices are not fit for purpose because of the software.

    I believe the phone has a number of significant shortcomings, which one might have expected to be sorted out over the last 4 years.

    Is it that the given hardware isn’t suitable for the task?

    Is it that the community’s goodwill towards Pine64 is drying up?

    Or is it that about half a dozen engineers in the world know how to fix these problems, and they’re not inclined to help?

    I always thought that open source electronics enjoys the huge advantage of an almost limitless team of experts working on a problem that must be the envy of any proprietary manufacturer. Perhaps the vast majority are happy enough with the current duopoly. :/

  3. For me, Pine64 has lost its attractiveness.
    1. The hardware is cheap and doesn’t last long. The Pine Book Pro’s display doesn’t want to start anymore and the laptop hinges are destroyed. Cheap plastic.
    2. Making Manjaro the default distro was not comprehensible. Why does one of the worst distroes which did the least work to support the PBP and the PP get all the money? They can’t even renew their SSL certificate:
    Something is fishy!

  4. First things first – there is no fully open hardware. It just doesn’t exist nowadays.
    As to the Pine64 hardware – the problem with it is that it’s faulty by design. Pinebook Pro and Pinephone are best examples. And it’s not open.

  5. Need a modem that works in USA. My OnePlus 5t and several other phone were banned by carriers.

    1. The pinephone’s modem still makes calls if you use t-mobile MVNOs, but not t-mobile itself.

  6. I suppose it should have been obvious that sticking with that one “default” OS on a new phone that basically needs hardware support re-developed all over again for multiple distros probably wasn’t the best of plans. But I wasn’t really aware that Manjaro didn’t really do much in the way of development.

    1. When i originally bought my pinephone, PostmarketOS was the preferred choice, i don’t know what kind of back room shenanigans went on to make that switch to Manjaro, and based on what has come to light in these public discussions, it seems to be 100% politics.

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