The Librem 5 is a big project. And like a lot of big projects, as you probably know, it can appear overwhelming, until you can break the parts down into logical steps. Like a large puzzle scattered on a table, our team has been organizing and beginning to assemble all the pieces. This is very exciting to progress through the initial daunting scope, accepting the tasks, start working and then… after some time, solutions emerge and almost magically align.
In our previous blog posts we described what we were starting to work on, and these efforts began to prove themselves out significantly during our week-long hackfest where part of our software phone team gathered last week in Siegen, Germany. Read more
Being at FOSDEM 2018 was a blast! We received a lot of great feedback about what we have accomplished and what we aim to achieve. These sorts of constructive critiques from our community are how we grow and thrive so thank you so much for this! It helps us to focus our development. Moreover, I was very impressed by the appreciation that we received from the free software community. I know that relationships between companies, even Social Purpose Corporations—like Purism, and the free software communities are a delicate balance. You need to find a good balance between being transparent, open, and free on one side but also having revenue to sustain the development on the other side. The positive feedback we received at FOSDEM and the appreciation that was expressed for our projects was great to hear.
We are working really hard on making ethical products, based on free/libre and open source software a reality. This is not “just a job” for anybody on the Purism staff, we all love what we do and deeply believe in the good cause we are working so hard to achieve. Your appreciation and feedback is the fuel that drives us to work on it even harder. Thank you so much!
As I mentioned before, we have the i.MX 6 QuadPlus test hardware on hand, so here are some photos of our development board actually running something:
On the right, you can see the Nitrogen board with the modem card installed. On the left is our display running a browser displaying the Purism web-page and below it a terminal window in which I started the browser. To put the resolution of the display into perspective I put a Micro SD card on the display:
The terminal window is about as big as three Micro SD cards! This makes it very clear that a lot of work has to be put into making applications usable on a high resolution screen and to make them finger friendly since the only input system we have is the touch screen. In the next picture I put an Euro coin on the screen and switched back to text console:
Concerning the software, we are working on getting the basic framework to work with the hardware we have at hand. One essential piece is the middleware that handles the mobile modem that deals with making phone calls and sending and receiving SMS text messages. For this we want to bring up oFono since it is also used by KDE Plasma mobile. We have a first success to share:
This is the first SMS sent through oFono from the iMX board and the attached modem to a regular mobile smartphone where the screenshot was taken. So we are on the right track here and have a solution that is starting to work that suits multiple possible systems, like Plasma mobile or a future GNOME/GTK+ based mobile environment.
The SMS was sent with a python script using the native oFono DBus API. First the kernel drivers for the modem had to be enabled followed by running ofonod which autodetects the modem. Next the modem must be enabled and brought online (online-modem). Once this was done sending an SMS was as simple as:
purism@pureos:~/ofono/test$ sudo ./send-sms 07XXXXXXXXX "Sent from my Librem 5 i.MX6 dev board!"
The script itself is very simple and instructive. Simulating the reception of a text message can also be done, with a command such as this one:
purism@pureos:~/ofono/test$ sudo ./receive-smsb 'Sent to my Librem 5 i.MX6 dev board!' LocalSentTime = 2018-02-07T10:26:19+0000 SentTime = 2018-02-07T10:26:19+0000 Sender = +447XXXXXXXXX
The evolution of mobile hardware manufacturing
We are building a phone, so hardware is an important part of the process. In our last blog post we talked a bit about researching hardware manufacturing partners. Since we are not building yet-another Qualcomm SOC based phone, but starting from scratch, we are working to narrow down all the design choices and fabrication partners in the coming months. This additional research phase has everything to do with how the mobile phone hardware market has evolved in the past years and I want to share how this all works with you.
In the early days of smartphones, a common case was that the main CPU was separated from the cellular baseband modem and that the cellular modem would run its own firmware when implementing all of the necessary protocols that operate the radio interface—at first it was GSM, then UMTS (3G) and finally LTE (4G). These protocols and the handling of the radio interface have become so complex that the necessary computational power for handling this as well as the firmware sizes have grown over time. Current 3G/4G modems include a firmware of 60 or more megabytes are becoming more common. It did not take long before storing this firmware became an issue as well as at run time since this requires significant increases of RAM usage.
Smartphones usually have a second CPU core for the main operating system which also runs the phone applications and interacts with the users. This means that your device must have two RAM systems as well, one for the baseband and one for the host CPU. This also means you need two storages for firmware, one for the host CPU and one for the baseband. As you may imagine, getting all of these components working together in a form factor small enough to fit into someone’s hand takes a lot of development and manufacturing resources.
The advent of cheap smartphones
There is extreme pressure about the cost of smartphones. In today’s commodity market, we see simple smartphones starting at prices less than $100 USD.
The introduction of combined chips, with radio baseband plus host CPU on one silicon die inside one chip, massively reduced costs. This allows the host CPU and baseband to share RAM and storage. Since the radio can be made in the same silicon process as the host CPU, and both can be placed in a single chip package, we see substantial cost reduction in the semiconductor manufacturing as well as the cost of manufacturing the device. This saves you from having to use a second large chip for the radio itself, an extra flash chip for its firmware, and possibly an extra RAM chip for its operation. This does not only reduce the Bill of Materials (BOM), but also PCB space, and it enables the creation of even smaller and thinner devices. Today we see many big companies offer these types of combined chipsets—such as Qualcomm, Broadcom, and Mediatek to name a few.
These chips caused a big shift in the mobile baseband modem market. Formerly it was common to find discrete baseband modems on the market that were applicable for mobile battery powered handsets like the one we are developing. But since the rise of the combined chipsets, the need for separated modems has dropped to a level that does not justify their development as much. You can still find modem modules and cards but these modules are usually targeted for M2M (machine to machine) communication with only limited data rates and most of them do not have audio/voice functions. They usually come in pretty large cards, such as the miniPCIe or M.2. For us this means that our choice of separated baseband modems suitable for a phone is narrowed.
What this means for OEM, ODM or Build it Yourself
All of this consolidation has an impact on hardware manufacturers and our choices. Pretty much all current smartphone designs by OEM/ODM manufacturers are based on the combined chipset types; this is all they know and it is where they have expertise. Almost no one is making phones with separated basebands anymore, and the ones who do are not OEMs nor ODMs. The options are further limited by our requirement not to include any proprietary firmware on our host CPU (which we wrote about before): most fabricators are unfamiliar with i.MX 6 or i.MX 8 and do not want to risk a development based on it, which narrows our hardware design and manufacturing partners to a much smaller list.
However, we have some promising partners that we will continue to evaluate, and we are confident that we are going to be able to design and manufacture the Librem 5 as we originally specified. We just wanted to share with you why making this particular hardware is so challenging and why our team is the best one to execute on this design. To continue to discuss with some of the manufacturers and providers, Purism will visit Embedded World, one of the world’s largest embedded electronics trade shows, in Nürnberg (Germany) in the beginning of March. And, as usual, we will continue to keep you updated on our progress!
Good news with our existing evaluation boards
We have been patiently waiting for the i.MX 8M to become available, all according to the forecast timeline from NXP. In the meantime, we have started developing software using the i.MX 6 QuadPlus board from Boundary Devices, specifically the NITROGEN6_MAX (Nit6Qp_MAX) since it is the closest we get to production devices before NXP releases the i.MX 8M. We have a Debian Testing based image running as a testbed on these boards while the PureOS team is preparing to build PureOS for ARM and ARM64 in special.
On these evaluation boards we have all the interfaces that we need for software development:
Video input and output
USB for input devices
Serial console and a miniPCIe socket with SIM card connected for attaching a mobile modem
At the moment, we are using a Sierra Wireless MC7455 LTE miniPCIe modem card for development, which uses a Qualcomm MDM9230 baseband modem chip. This card is basically a USB device in a mPCIe form factor, i.e. we do not actually use the PCIe interface.
An extremely nice display to our kits using an HDMI-to-MIPI adapter board. The display is a 5.5″ AMOLED display with full-HD resolution with the native orientation as portrait mode.
This hardware setup allows us to start a lot of the software development work now to ensure our development continues in parallel until we have the i.MX 8M based hardware in hand.
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!
When it comes to prototyping the Librem 5, we are working hard and making progress on several sides. As you have seen in yesterday’s testing update blog post, we are working on development hardware in order to start getting software development groundwork done. Today, I’m sharing the results of a quick experiment with web and touch on a prototype board. Read more