Kyle Rankin

Kyle Rankin

President
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Librem Social
Kyle Rankin

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It’s the start of a new era at Purism. With the announcement of my new role as President, I thought I should share a bit about my background at Purism, my thoughts on the vision Purism captured in its Social Purpose charter, how we’ve approached that vision so far, and how I see us working toward it in the future.

My Origin Story

I joined Purism full-time at the beginning of 2018 during a time of intense soul-searching. Linux Journal, which I had written a monthly column for going on ten years, had announced it was closing. If you read my farewell post you can see that I wasn’t just processing the death of Linux Journal, I was trying to figure out what that said about the free software community at large, and my place in it:

With Linux Journal shutting down we’ve lost an advocate for Linux, Open Source and open standards that we need now more than ever. We’ve also lost a rallying point for those of us in the community that still believe in all of the principles that brought us to Linux to begin with. We may have won a few battles, but the fight ahead of us is more insidious and subtler. Are there enough of us left who remember what we were fighting for? Are enough of us still in fighting shape?

After a decade of hacking and slashing, I have to accept that this era is over. Instead of losing heart, for me this marks the start of a new era, and a chance to refocus on the things I’ve always valued about this community. I hope you don’t lose heart either, we have a lot of work ahead of us.

I decided then that my part-time contributions to free software (mostly writing and advocacy) simply weren’t enough and that I should “put my money where my mouth is” or in my case, put my time where my mouth is by working to advance free software full-time. As I mention in How Purism Funds Free Software:

A lot of great software has been written in a developer’s free time, and arguably most free software is written this way. Yet if we want free software to progress as quickly as possible (and we do), we must enable more people to pursue their labor of love full-time instead of just on the weekends. That means paying people full-time salaries for their work.

So I joined Purism as Chief Security Officer to help design security measures for our products that still respected people’s freedom not just by being free software, but by giving people more security self-sufficiency. This started with launching an initiative to incorporate Heads into our boot firmware, which is now part of our PureBoot project. That was followed by launching the Librem Key and integrating it into the boot firmware so that we could make the existing verification process more user-friendly and more secure, with keys you control. We also expanded anti-interdiction services to detect tampering in shipment, and it is now a popular add-on for our hardware. I’ve even found an outlet for some of the writing I previously wrote for Linux Journal in the Purism blog.

Success by Increments

We have big, challenging goals. Creating an ethical, free software alternative to Big Tech that protects people’s freedom, privacy and security isn’t easy. Few of our goals have shortcuts, many require us to build things from scratch, and few can be realized 100% at the start. Instead of shipping nothing until a goal is fully realized, we have announced our goals, then make incremental progress toward them, getting the ball closer to the hole with every swing. The community has been invited along in this journey in the form of crowdfunding campaigns and participating in our public development efforts.

Not everyone understands the incremental approach. For some, anything short of 100% doesn’t count. They want a hole in one. Instead of being interested in our big, long-term goals, they may just want a piece of hardware or software for a short-term solution. Instead of joining us on the journey, they are upset we aren’t at the destination.

For instance, when we first announced the Librem laptop line, we also announced our intention to replace its proprietary boot firmware with coreboot and disable the Intel Management Engine. While initial shipments of the laptop included proprietary firmware, we ultimately did ship coreboot and disabled ME on Librem laptops as promised. More recently we replaced the proprietary Embedded Controller firmware with Librem EC. Yet there is still work to do to create a laptop with 100% free software and firmware and we continue to increment toward that goal.

We take this same incremental approach with security. We reject many of the solutions security vendors typically use, because they remove control from their customers. This means we have had to replace those solutions with something else starting with a strong foundation that we then build on. Instead of Secure Boot, we have PureBoot. Instead of a secure enclave chip in a phone controlled by the vendor, our Librem 5 offers a removable OpenPGP smart card. This approach takes more time and effort on our part–it’s certainly easier to use an off-the-shelf solution–but our approach better balances security and freedom.

Hardware is hard (and software isn’t much easier), especially if you are doing something counter to trends. Traditionally you only hear about a product once it’s ready to ship. Unless you are in the industry, you would rarely see all of the problems and delays on the way to bringing a product to market. Our incremental approach done in public has meant steady progress, and while you get to share in all of our successes, you also get to see all of the struggles, stumbles, and delays along the way.

Diverse Customers, Big Competitors

It’s important to understand how we view who are customers and competitors are, because it helps explain how we make decisions, how we prioritize our projects, and why we take such a long-term view on our goals. Because Purism is a strong supporter of free software, many people pigeon-hole us into the “Linux market” and assume our target customer is the hardcore Linux geek. For the same reasons, people often assume our competitors are other companies selling hardware that runs free software and that somehow our or their success is at each others’ expense.

While it’s true that we’ve always had a strong core of Linux geeks in our customer base (I’m one of them), I think many people would be surprised to discover just how diverse our customers are. I often say that we sit on a three-legged stool of freedom, privacy and security. Everyone, not just Linux geeks, deserve those things yet each of our customers prioritizes those three values differently.

Our core Linux geek audience prioritizes freedom and picks us because of our goal to build hardware that runs 100% free software. Security experts pick us because of our unique security features like our hardware kill switches, auditable firmware, PureBoot, and our Qubes support. Our customers who prioritize privacy pick us because they want an alternative to Big Tech that doesn’t spy on them, and many of these customers have never used something like PureOS before.

It may surprise some people to learn we don’t view other small companies who sell computers with Linux pre-installed as our competitors. I wish our problem was the huge number of freedom-respecting hardware companies out there. Because we all share our software, we all share in each others’ success.

Instead, our competitors are Big Tech companies who don’t value the freedom, security and privacy of their customers and instead often exploit them. These companies have vast resources and use their dominance of the tech market for their own interests, instead of their customers.

Providing a real, ethical alternative to Big Tech hardware, software and services is a huge mission, one we have worked years on to get to this point, and one that will take many more years to achieve. Making our alternatives convenient is the key to this success. Different products are at different stages of this process. Where our Librem laptop line started with a core Linux audience, over the years as it has matured, it has expanded to people from all walks of life. Our Librem 5 product line is earlier in this process yet we are already seeing it expand beyond our initial core of Linux geeks to privacy-focused customers who want a Big Tech alternative. Since both product lines use the same convergent OS, they both benefit from improvements we and the community make.

Focus on the Future

As we move into a new era at Purism, there are a few areas that I want to focus on. The first is stability. Those of you who have been with us on our journey so far know what a wild ride the past few years have been as we have navigated supply chain shortages and shipping challenges. We want a much smoother ride going forward, so we invested heavily last year on inventory to leave “Just in Time” behind. The Librem 14 was the first to benefit from this stabler supply because it had shorter lead times, but we’ve made similar investments in the Librem 5 and Librem 5 USA. For instance, once we hit shipping parity on the Librem 5 USA, which will happen soon, we intend to keep it in stock from that point on.

While crowdfunding has gotten us where we are today, the crowdfunding approach isn’t ideal when your focus is stability. Even when you have experience with making hardware like we do, it is still incredibly challenging to predict timelines for new products and foresee all of the problems and delays that can come your way. So instead of announcing products and taking pre-orders at the conception phase, we will take a more traditional (and stable) approach of announcing new products once they are ready to ship.

The next area to focus on is communications. While we have tried to improve our communication with the community over the past couple of years, there is still room for improvement. We used to share information only when we knew it for certain, which led to infrequent updates when we were dealing with a lot of uncertainty. You have told us you want more information, more frequently, even if it’s something we don’t know for sure, so we have started to modify how we communicate with that in mind. This transition in style hasn’t always been perfect though. For instance, this past fall and winter we weren’t great at communicating the cascading series of delays and challenges we faced with producing the Librem 5 USA. Improving our communication is a big area of focus for me personally and I hope that you will notice even more progress on this front in the coming months.

The final area is a focus on the projects we take on. When you have an incredibly talented group of engineers who can do many things well, and an ever-growing list of things that must be done to advance free software, you tend to take on more than you can reasonably work on at the same time. Our upstream-first approach to software development helps with this challenge, as our software innovations to make a convergent desktop have become part of the GNOME project, and our kernel improvements merge into the mainline kernel. All the same, we must constantly evaluate where we focus our efforts to make sure they make the biggest impact for the most people.

This means we will more selective with new projects we take on to ensure we aren’t stretched too thin. Projects like Fund Your App have been incredibly helpful as we shape our own priorities, both for projects we work on internally and those we assist with from the outside. This also means collaborating even more with the community at large for all of those important projects we can’t tackle personally. This is something we’ve already been doing all along, but will take on even more importance as we renew our focus.

As For Me…

As for me, I’m incredibly excited about this new era for Purism and my place in it. There are far too few companies left that believe in the principles of free software and who put those principles and the privacy and security of their customers first. Everyone here at Purism truly believes in this mission, and I’ve never had more conversations about the most ethical and freedom-respecting way to accomplish something than here. I am privileged and blessed to be able to work full-time on something I love and believe in, with others who feel the same.

Do you believe in our mission? If you have ideas on areas you’d like to see us focus on in the future, please let us know at feedback@puri.sm.

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