While mildly working on and playing with the PinePhone Pro, I recently got amazed at how pleasant to use this device was, and how little work it took us to get to this point!
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that the PinePhone Pro is already quite usable (to the point where the bravest could probably daily-drive it – I actually did for a whole week!) is the result of countless hours of engineering, most of those having happened before the Developer Edition even shipped, in good part thanks to the combined efforts of @megi and @MartijnBraam.
It’s also the result of very clever choices made by Pine64:
- design the device around the RockChip RK3399, a very well-known and supported SoC in mainline Linux and u-boot
- use the modem we already know (and, at times, hate) from the OG PinePhone
- choose peripheral chips identical to those used on the OG PinePhone (flashlight, accelerometer…) or already well supported upstream (audio codec)
This definitely eased the initial bringup process and allowed us to enable several useful features very quickly. However, the most amazing part of this whole process is the maturity of the whole software ecosystem when compared to what we experienced in the days of the BraveHeart Edition PinePhone!
If you build it, they will come
Two years ago, when first starting working on the OG PinePhone, the available software targeting mobile phones was a bit rough around the edges, to say the least:
- Phosh was barely past the proof-of-concept stage
- Plasma Mobile wasn’t very usable, although things improved quickly
- mobile-friendly apps were few, and often needed a number of downstream patches to be usable on phones
With the exception of UBPorts/Lomiri, the FLOSS ecosystem clearly wasn’t ready for the PinePhone! However, give enough developers an itch to collectively scratch, and they’ll each do their part.
And that’s precisely what made the PinePhone instrumental in improving the mobile Linux ecosystem: by providing a low-cost (yet usable) device able to run a “real” (as opposed to Android, for example) Linux system, it ended up in the hands of many FLOSS developers, each with their own wishes and requirements. This obviously resulted in more available brains to work on those matters, and accelerated the development of software targeting mobile phones.
Not every PinePhone owner was a developer though, and non-dev users also did help improving the ecosystem: first by bugging us enough so we would address (and usually fix) their problems, but also by simply increasing the demand for mobile-friendly and/or adaptive applications. This prompted more developers of pre-existing apps to ensure their software would be usable on our tiny, touchscreen-based devices.
With great power, comes great software
While access to hardware and applications availability are both important for Linux to successfully conquer mobile devices, building a full mobile environment is a huge task, not easily achieved by relying only on volunteers' efforts.
Enters Purism: unlike Pine64, they actually have a number of highly skilled software developers and designers on their payroll. That alone made a huge difference for the whole ecosystem: instead of focusing solely on their own Librem 5, Purism employees did (and continue to) spend their working hours developing Phosh and its siblings in the open, giving mobile users a usable, fast-evolving, community-friendly graphical environment they could use on any decent smartphone running mainline Linux.
Likewise, mobile devices need applications, and Purism led the way on that front too: by working on libhandy, then libadwaita and pushing for their adoption by the wider GNOME community, they paved the way for a brighter future for both mobile and desktop Linux users.
In the end, the software ecosystem initially developed for the Librem 5 has been widely adopted by the mobile Linux community and made its way into most of the distributions targeting such devices. The way all those building blocks evolved over the past two years, thanks to the combined efforts of volunteers and paid developers, now allows us to provide an enjoyable user experience with minimal efforts, even on a new device such as the PinePhone Pro!
Complement, not compete
As the Librem 5 and PinePhone (including the Pro version) are the only Linux-first smartphones currently available for new purchases, people tend to compare those directly, more often than not criticizing Purism for the (admittedly high) price of their smartphone. Those comparisons generally miss the point by ignoring the different cost structure for each device, and specifically the cost of software engineering Purism is funding (trust me, engineering time is not cheap).
But more importantly, those are not random smartphones, designed with planned obsolescence in mind and eager to capture every single bit of data your digital life can generate. Both the Librem 5 and the PinePhone are privacy-respecting, empowering smartphones, and complement each other very well:
- PinePhone users provide a large enough user base so bugs can be tracked down and fixed over time
- PinePhone developers contribute fixes and features to the Phosh software stack
- Librem 5 users indirectly fund the software development effort
- Librem 5 developers provide the whole community with quality software and lead the GNOME transition to mobile-friendly applications
Whatever device you may choose and/or prefer, both should be acknowledged for what they are: game changers which helped shape the mobile Linux community each in their own way, and will likely keep doing so for many years to come.