Device maker Purism shares new details on the smartphone’s status and production schedule
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., September 4, 2018 — Purism, the social purpose corporation which designs and produces popular digital rights respecting hardware, software, and services, is sharing the much anticipated progress and scheduling for its Librem 5 smartphone. Read more
As you might have noted when we announced closing the development kit “last call” sale, new specifications have been made public. I want to explain what led to these specifications and why we made the choices we made and what the current timeline is for the devkits and Librem 5 phones. Read more
Lately, news headlines have been packed with discussions about critical CPU bugs which are not only found in Intel CPUs, but also partially in AMD CPUs and some ARM cores. At the same time, some of our backers have voiced concerns about the future of NXP in light of a potential acquisition by Qualcomm. Therefore you might be wondering, “Will the Librem 5 be affected by these bugs too?” and “will the Purism team get the i.MX 8 chips as planned?”, so let’s address those questions now.
Not affected by Spectre/Meltdown
At the moment we are pretty confident that we will be using one of NXP’s new i.MX 8 family of CPUs/SOCs for the Librem 5 phone. More specifically we are looking at the i.MX 8M which features four ARM Cortex A53 cores. According to ARM, these cores are not affected by the issues now known as Spectre or Meltdown, which ARM’s announcement summarizes in their security update bulletin.
So for the moment we are pretty sure that the Librem 5 phone will not be affected, however we will continue to keep an eye on the situation since more information about these bugs is surfacing regularly. In this respect we can also happily report that we have a new consultant assisting our team in security questions concerning hardware-aided security as well as questions like “is the phone’s CPU affected by Spectre/Meltdown or not”.
Qualcomm possibly buying NXP: not a concern
For quite some time there have been rumors that Qualcomm might have an interest in acquiring NXP. Since we will be using an NXP chip as the main CPU, specifically one of the i.MX 8 family, we are well aware of this development and are watching it closely.
Qualcomm is an industry leader for high volume consumer electronics whereas NXP targets lower volume industrial customers. This results in pretty different approaches concerning support, especially for free software. Where NXP traditionally is pretty open with specifications, Qualcomm is rather hard to get information from. This is very well reflected by the Linux kernel support for the respective chips. The question is how would it affect continued free software support and availability of information on NXP SOCs if Qualcomm acquires NXP?
First, it is unlikely that this deal will happen at all. Qualcomm had a pretty bad financial year in 2017 so they might not be in the financial position to buy another company. Second, there is a rumor that Broadcom might acquire Qualcomm first. Third, international monopoly control organizations are still investigating if they can allow such a merger at all. Just a few days ago the EU monopoly control agreed to allow the merge but with substantial constraints, for example Qualcomm would have to license several patents free of charge, etc. Finally, there are industry obligations that NXP cannot drop easily: the way NXP works with small and medium sized customers is a cornerstone of many products and customers; changing this would severely hamper all of those businesses involved, and these changes might cause bad reputation, bad marketing and loss of market share.
So all in all, this merger is not really likely to happen soon and there would probably not be changes for existing products like the i.MX 8 family. If the merger happens it might affect future/unreleased products.
In addition to working on obtaining i.MX6QuadPlus development boards to be able to work properly, the phone team is also intensively researching and evaluating software that we will base our development efforts on during the next few months. We are well aware of the huge amount of work ahead of us and the great responsibility that we have committed to. As part of this research, we reached out to the GNOME human interface design team with whom we began discussions on design as well as implementation. For example, we started to implement a proof of concept widget that would make it much easier to adapt existing desktop applications to a phone or even other style of user interface. What we would like to achieve is a convergence of devices so that a single application can adapt to the user interface it is currently being used with. This is still a long way ahead of us, but we are working on it now. We will meet up also with some GNOME team members at FOSDEM to discuss possible development and design goals as well as collaboration possibilities.
The mobile development work for KDE/Plasma will primarily be performed by their own human interface teams. Purism will be supporting their efforts through supplying hardware and documentation about our phone development progress as it is happening. This will help ensure that that KDE/Plasma will function properly on the Librem 5 right from the factory. To understand better where we’re headed with GNOME and KDE together, take a look at this blog post.
We also reviewed and evaluated compositing managers and desktop shells that we could use for a phone UI. We aim to use only Wayland, trying to get rid of as much X11 legacy as we possibly can, for performance issues and for better security. From our discussions with GNOME maintainers of existing compositors and shells, we may be better off igniting a new compositor (upstreamed and backed by GNOME) in order to avoid the X11 baggage.
On the application and middleware side of things, we have generated an impressive list of applications we could start to modify for the phone to reach the campaign goals and we have further narrowed down middleware stacks. We are still evaluating so I do not want to go into too much detail here, in order not set any expectation. We will of course talk about this in more detail in some later blog posts.
Meeting with Chip Makers
As the CPU choice is pretty clear lately, we are going to have a meeting with NXP and some other chip makers at Embedded World in Nürnberg, Germany, at the end of the month. This is very encouraging since we worked for months on getting a direct contact to NXP, which we now finally have and who we will meet in person at the conference. The search for design and manufacturing partners is taking longer than expected though. Our own hardware engineering team together with the software team, especially our low level and kernel engineers, started to create a hardware BOM (bill of material) and also a “floor plan” for a potential PCB (printed circuit board) layout, but it turns out that many manufacturers are reluctant to work with the i.MX 8M since it is a new CPU/SOC. We have, however, some promising leads and good contacts so we will work on that.
Purism Librem 5 team members attending FOSDEM
By the way, many Purism staff members will be at FOSDEM this week-end, on the 3rd and 4th of February. In addition to the design and marketing team, PureOS and Librem 5 team members will be there and we would love to get in touch with you! Purism representatives dedicated to answering your questions will be wearing this polo shirt so you can easily recognize them:
First, let me apologize for the silence. It was not because we went into hibernation for the winter, but because we were so busy in the initial preparation and planning of a totally new product while simultaneously orienting an entirely new development team. Since we are more settled into place now, we want to change this pattern of silence and provide regular updates. Purism will be giving weekly news update posts regarding the Librem 5 phone project, alternating progress reports on two fronts:
from the technology development point of view (the hardware, kernel, OS, etc.);
from the design department (UI+UX), and our collaboration with GNOME and KDE.
To kickoff this new update process, today’s post will discuss the organizational and technological progress of the Librem 5 project since November 2017.
Just after our successful pre-order crowdfunding campaign (by the way, thank you to all of the backers!) we started to reach out to people who had applied for jobs related to the Librem 5 project. We had well over 100 applicants who showed great passion for the project and had excellent resumes.
Our applicants came from all over the world with some of the most diverse backgrounds I have ever seen. Todd Weaver (CEO) and myself did more than 80 interviews with applicants over a two weeks period. In the end, we had to narrow down to 15 people that we would make offers to; it was with great regret that we had to turn down so many stellar applicants, but we had to make decisions in a timely fashion and unfortunately the budget isn’t unlimited. During the weeks that followed, we negotiated terms with our proposed team members and started to roll new people into the team (with all that involves in an organizational setting). All of the new team members are now on board as of January 2018. They are not yet shown on our team page, but we will add them soon and make an announcement to present all the individuals who have recently joined our team.
As amazing as our community is, we also received applications from individuals who are so enthusiastic about our project that they want to help us as volunteers! We will reach out to them shortly, now that the core team is in place and settled.
There are so many people to thank for the successful jump start of our phone development project! It was amazing for us to see how much energy and interest we were able to spark with our project. We want to give a big thank you to everyone for reaching out to us and we really appreciate every idea and applicant.
CPU / System On Chip
During our early phase we used a NXP i.MX6 SOC (System On Chip) to begin software evaluation, and the results were pretty promising. This was why we listed the i.MX6 in the campaign description. The most important feature of the i.MX6 was that it is one of only a handful of SOCs supported by a highly functional free software GPU driver set, the Etnaviv driver. The Etnaviv driver has been included in the Linux mainline kernel for quite some time and the matching MESA support has evolved nicely. Briefly after our announcement we were contacted by one of the key driving forces behind the Etnaviv development effort which provides us with valuable insight in to this complex topic.
Further work with the i.MX6 showed us that it still uses quite a lot of power so when put under load it would drain a battery quickly, as well as warm up the device.
NXP had been talking about a new family of SOCs, the i.MX8, which would feature a new silicon processor and updated architecture. The release of the i.MX8 had been continuously postponed. Nevertheless, once we realized that the i.MX6 might be too power hungry, the i.MX8 became appealing to us. Hardware prototype operations are always tricky because you have to plan for emerging technologies that you meld with existing parts or materials. Components from original manufacturers sometimes never get released, are discontinued or the availability from the factory grinds to a halt for reasons beyond our control. This is the function of engaging in prototype development so that we can suffer the slings and arrows for you to provide the customer the best possible end product. We have been in active communication with all of our suppliers preparing a development plan that is beneficial for all of us.
At CES in Las Vegas, NXP announced the product release dates for their new SOC, the i.MX8M, along with a set of documentation. This is currently the most likely candidate we will use in the Librem 5. We are very excited about this timely announcement! At Embedded World in Nürnberg, Germany, NXP will announce details and a roadmap. We will be attending and discuss with NXP directly about the i.MX8M for the Librem 5.
We have also decided to use AARCH64, a.k.a. “ARM64”, for the phone software builds as soon as we have i.MX8 hardware. A build server for building ARM64 is now in place and the PureOS development team is beginning to work with the Librem 5 development team on the build process. Adding a second architecture for the FSF endorsed PureOS—that will run on Librem laptops as well as the Librem 5 phone—is a major undertaking that will benefit all future Librem 5 phone development.
Prototype Display for Development Boards
Since the i.MX8 is still not yet easily available, and in order not to unnecessarily slow development progress, we need similar hardware to start developing software. We switched to an i.MX6 Quad Plus board which should provide similar speed for the GPU to what we will find in the i.MX8M. From our contact from the Etnaviv developers we know that they are heavily working on the i.MX8M support so we can expect that Etnaviv will be working on it within the year.
One of the big tasks of our software and design teams, working with our partners (GNOME, KDE, Matrix, Nextcloud, and Monero), will be to create a proper User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) for a phone screen. The challenges are that the screen will be between 5″ to 5.5″ diagonally with a resolution of up to full HD (1920×1080), and a functional touchscreen! The amazing teams developing GNOME and KDE/Plasma have already done a great job laying the groundwork technologies and setting up this kind of interface to build, develop, and test with. With such great partners and development teams we are confident that we can successfully integrate the freedom, privacy, and security of PureOS with phone hardware to provide a beautiful user experience.
To help with development, we are already in the process of sourcing components to attach 5.5″ full HD displays to our development boards. Our development boards are already booting a mainline kernel into a Wayland UI nicely. We are evaluating similar displays from several manufacturers. We found a supplier for a matching adapter logic board (HDMI to MIPI). Our hardware engineer has already designed an additional adapter for interfacing the display’s touchscreen so that we will realistically have a 5.5″ full HD screen with touch capability on our development boards.
Potential Manufacturing Sites
The overall plan is to have a custom device manufacturing process setup somewhere where we can manufacture our own devices. Since November of last year we have been intensively researching and evaluating potential manufacturing partners. So far we have been in contact with over 80 potential fabricators and are in the process of negotiating capabilities and terms. No decision has been made yet. We have some promising prospects from all over the world, including Asia, Europe and the USA, and we plan on visiting some of these sites in person possibly by the end of February or March.
Now that the development team is in place we will be reaching out to our partners. Our UI/UX design team along with phone dev team are working with the GNOME UI/UX team to develop a path forward for mobile interfaces. We will also reach out to others who have partnered with us during the campaign, such as the KDE/Plasma team, Matrix, Nextcloud, Monero and many more.
I hope that the fog has been lifted, and we have answered questions you might have or assuaged fears of our silence. We hope that you enjoyed this first dive into our development process. We here at Purism are all very excited about the Librem 5 phone project, as we are passionate about all of our products, with the phone holding a special place in our hearts and those of the Free Software community. That’s what makes us different from companies rolling out “yet another Android phone”, swapping color palettes or removing headphone jacks under the guise of “innovation”…
See you next week for more news on the Librem 5 project!