Category: Product Design

Ethical aesthetics – Librem 5 design report #7

You may have noticed that there is no obvious visual branding on the Librem laptops. While this was at first a technical limitation on the very first Librem model (back in 2015), the subtle and minimalistic branding that began on newer models in 2016 was a conscious design decision.

Now, we’re hoping to refine the physical branding further.
One reason for a minimalist design is aesthetic. Just like on a piece of hand-made jewelry, we wish the branding to be made in the form of an inconspicuous marking that doesn’t interfere with the natural beauty of the overall shape.

Another reason is ethical. While one should easily be able to identify a computer model when closely inspecting it, people using a Librem device should be prevented from, unintentionally, exposing the brand of their hardware, which may be seen as arrogant in some situations. But, above all, the Librem customer should not be used as a passive promoting medium. We think that this is an essential part of an ethical design.

This is described within our internal industrial design policies in term of visual identity, so I think important to emphasize those points.

Branding on the Librem laptops

Therefore, on the current Librem line, branding is only visible on the keyboard (with the “Super” key displaying the Purism logo) and on the bottom cover, displaying the brand and model name, along with certification symbols, underneath the computer.

That said, while not being visible during normal use (open on a table), the bottom branding of the Librem may be considered a bit flashy when carrying the laptop around, so we are considering making it even more discreet in the future.

Branding on the Librem 5

The Librem 5 is not in production yet but the public mock-ups have been escaping that rule so far. While I think that it was important for everyone to easily identify the device mock-ups during the campaign, the final model should not display any branding on the back cover of the handset. Instead we are discussing the possibility of having the brand and model number carved on the side of the device.

Designing the scope of the Librem 5’s communication apps

We have spent the last few weeks focusing on the design of the default communication features of the Librem 5. As part of that process, we came up with the design specification for two applications. One of them is called “Calls” and has been designed for the purpose of—you guessed it—making and receiving phone calls. The second one, called “Messages” has been designed for the no less obvious purpose of sending and receiving messages.

Tobias, our lead designer, does a great job in communicating and collaborating with the GNOME design team, and so we keep making progress jointly with the upstream GNOME project. When Tobias joined, we started by having a call with Allan Day and Jakub Steiner (from the GNOME design team) where we presented our project, our goals and discussed the way to structure our contributions to GNOME. For example, we have an app design repository on the upstream GNOME GitLab server, where our design and mock-ups are made available to everyone. All in all, our project and vision seem to be very well received by the GNOME community.

The “Calls” application

This application is not based on any existing application so we had to design it from scratch. We did so while Bob was making good progress on implementing the basic cellular call features.

“Calls” is supposed to let the user handle regular phone calls but is not limited to that. It is designed to integrate a much higher level of security and privacy through end to end encrypted technologies in a very transparent way. Private calls, between two devices supporting that feature, would be made by simply selecting a contact and pressing the “call” button.

The full design of the Calls application can be seen in its own repository.

The “Messages” application

At the beginning of the summer, some Purism members (Dorota, Adrien, Tobias and myself) participated in the Fractal hackfest in Strasbourg. The goal was to analyze and discuss the possibility of having Fractal become the default messaging application on PureOS and the Librem 5. This is motivated by our wish to be in sync with upstream choices as well as with the fact that Tobias, besides being the designer for the Librem 5 applications, is also the designer of Fractal. We also took this opportunity to meet Matthew from Matrix who provided very helpful technical clarifications about the Matrix technology.

It was clear in this meeting that Fractal’s future plans are aligned with the Ethical Design principles, that the Librem 5 and PureOS design guidelines are based on. An application following those guidelines, must be simple and focused on a single purpose.

One might think that the current state of Fractal already fits the main purpose of the Messages application (sending and receiving messages), but it is actually too general in terms of purpose. Chatting privately with a friend is not the same as discussing in a crowded IRC like public room. While the back-end technology may be the same for both situations, the user interface may have different requirements. This was discussed at the Fractal hackfest (Tobias used the analogy of the “barbecue” and the “banquet” to expose the problem), where Fractal developers decided that Fractal should be split into two distinct applications; one application would be used for the purpose of private 1 to 1 and small group chats (the barbecue), the other one would be used for the purpose of crowded IRC like discussions (the banquet). It will take a while for that split of an existing application to happen, however.

The simplified Messages application we have been developing is based on the “barbecue” usecase; private 1 to 1 and small groups chats, the most common usage for the majority of the population. The plan is for the Messages application to be able to handle regular text messages (SMS) while also handling secure end-to-end encrypted messages in a transparent way between two compatible devices.

The full design of the Messages application can be seen in its own repository.

Solving the first FSF RYF hurdle for the Librem 5

While investigating using the i.MX 8 for the Librem 5 phone we found an issue that would have been problematic for us to obtain the Free Software Foundation’s “Respects Your Freedom” (RYF) hardware endorsement:

  • In U-Boot there are a number of firmware blobs that need to be loaded into the DDR PHY so that it can be trained to work with DDR4. This training is done on every boot.
  • The normal boot sequence for the i.MX 8 is that the internal ROM loader loads the Secondary Program Loader (SPL) which, in this case, is a small version of U-Boot that can initialize the DDR and load the full U-Boot into DDR to finish the boot process. Very early in the SPL, the training blobs get loaded into the DDR PHY and the training sequence is run. The DDR training procedure is completely un-documented so re-writing the firmware blobs with free/libre or open source versions would be an arduous process.
  • We can’t ignore the DDR PHY because it is interface between the i.MX 8 internal buses and the DDR4 chips outside of the SOC. The DDR PHY is also part of the i.MX 8 silicon so we can’t just replace the DDR PHY with a different one. It also appears that all DDR PHY’s required this training to work with DDR4, so going to a different SOC wouldn’t solve it either.

The RYF has a “secondary processor” exclusion that can be granted on a case by case basis. We will leverage this exclusion to load and train the DDR PHY on the i.MX 8. We will use a secondary processor to keep binary blobs out of u-boot and the kernel. Read more

Introducing Calls on the Librem 5

Introduction

Arguably the most critical functionality in a phone is the ability to make and receive calls through the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), that is normal cellular calls using phone numbers. While at Purism we are eager to implement communication systems that enable much greater privacy and security than one can expect from PSTN calls, the PSTN is still the most ubiquitous network and for the time being we can’t very well go around selling a phone that isn’t able to make PSTN calls. Read more

Librem 5 design report #5

Hello everyone! A lot has happened behind the scenes since my last design report. Until now, I have been reporting on our design work mainly on the software front, but our effort is obviously not limited to that. The experience that people can have with their physical device is also very important. So in this post I will summarize some recent design decisions we have made both on the software side and the hardware product “experience” design.

Thinking about the physical shell

Our goal with the Librem 5 is to improve the visual identity of the Librem line while staying close to the minimalist and humble look that characterize the existing Librem line.

The main challenge of case design is the need to balance aesthetics, ergonomics, convenience, and technical limitations.

As you know, the Librem 5 is a special phone that will not integrate the same CPU and chipsets as usually implemented in the vast majority of smartphones in the market. Power consumption is a very important factor to take into account, but so is battery capacity and printed circuit board arrangements, and we don’t want to sacrifice battery life for a few millimeters of thickness. Therefore:

  • We are now aiming for a 5.5″ to 5.7″ screen with a 18:9 ratio that would let us incorporate a larger battery without affecting the shape of the phone.
  • We are also opting for a shape with chamfered edges (as pictured below), instead of the usual rounded ones. Not only do we think it looks elegant, the general shape would provide a better grip and it give us a bit more room inside for components.

Simplifying the UI shell

As the implementation of the Librem 5 goes on, we are quite aware that time is limited given our January 2019 target, and we are therefore focusing on robustness and efficiency for the first version of the mobile UI shell (“phosh”), which we wish to push upstream to become the GNOME mobile shell. As you may recall from our technical report from early March, we had discussed with GNOME Shell maintainers, who recommended this clean-slate approach.

We revisited the shell features and decided to split the design and implementation into several phases.

Phase 1 defines a shell that is at its simplest state in term of features and usability. This is the shell that should ship with the Librem 5 in January 2019.

This shell includes :

  • A lock screen.
  • A PIN-based unlock screen for protecting the session.
  • A home screen that displays a paginated list of installed applications.
  • A top bar that displays useful information such as the time, battery level, audio level, network status…
  • A bottom bar that simulates a home button (only visible when opening an application).
  • A virtual keyboard.
  • Incoming call notifications.

The “call” app is indeed a special case application on a phone, and that’s why we’re prioritizing it for the notifications feature: it has to work from day one, and it has some requirements like the ability to interact directly on the lock screen (to answer an incoming call, or to place an emergency services call).

Multitasking UI workflows, search and more flexible app notification features/APIs should be implemented during phase 2, available a bit later.

While “phase 1” might not be the all-you-can-eat features buffet some may be accustomed to, we think that this minimalist shell will be extremely simple to learn, use and will favor a quick and painless adoption. And it’ll be a great starting point.

Designing the Contacts application

The Contacts application will be at the center of the communication features. It is the application that will handle the contacts management that other applications such as Calls or Messages will rely on.

For that matter, we are adapting the existing Contacts application by designing its mobile layout and adding extra fields that will be required by the different communication applications.

Librem 5 & Fractal team hackfest in Strasbourg

This week, a few members of the Librem 5 team (including myself) are attending the 2018 Fractal design hackfest in Strasbourg, with the goal of helping the Fractal team to make a beautiful and secure Matrix-based IM application to be used on both the desktop and mobile platform. I hope to do a report on the communication features of the Librem 5 in a future post where I will talk about what happened at the Fractal hackfest.

Initial Developer Documentation for the Librem 5 Phone Platform

At Purism, we are just as excited as you are about the the development boards that will be distributed this summer. Once a person receives their development board, their first thought will be “This is great! Now, what do I do with it?” In anticipation of the technical guidance that will be needed, the developer documentation effort has begun. You can already see the current state of the documentation at developer.puri.sm

Goal of the Docs

The developer documentation is there as a guide for getting a new developer setup and ready to start having fun! This will include plenty of examples that will help you along towards whatever your goal with the development board may be.

There will be technical step-by-step instructions that are suitable for both newbies and experienced Debian developers alike. The goal of the docs is to openly welcome you and light your path along the way with examples and links to external documentation. These examples will aid you from the start of unpacking your development board to building and deploying flatpak applications to it—and eventually including your package into PureOS. Included, you can expect examples on how to use certain tools like flatpak, the IDEs used to build flatpak applications, and UI tools to help you design apps. The design of the Librem 5 phone interface will also be outlined in detail to provide insight into the human interface guidelines that will be followed by the core applications. Use the design section to learn about gestures you can expect on the phone. Apps you design or port to the board can use these gestures too!

Please note that the docs are not a complete tutorial on how to use all of the development tools required. There are existing documentations available for each specific tool so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, you will be directed to those locations online so you can research further on a specific tool.

We welcome all test and development efforts that volunteers have to give, so there will also be information on volunteering and how to become a Purism community member in general.

Work in progress

The documentation is in a constant state of flux. Content is being added daily and reorganization still occurs from time-to-time. If you no longer see a page there, just search for it because chances are it has been moved to somewhere else within the site instead of removed. The aim is to write documentation that is helpful and intuitive so it is important that an intuitive path is laid out. This developer documentation is still pretty new but is filling out quickly so that you are ready to hit the ground running with your new development board in June!

There will be a separate announcement in the next few weeks on this same blog to call for volunteers so get ready!

Design report #4: symbiotic applications

Purism’s long-term goal has always been to make computers that are as convenient as they are respectful to the people that use them. The Librem products are an ethical platform and therefore should not be discriminating anyone; instead, they are meant to be inclusive of all human beings. In other words, everyone should find in their Librem a convenient and secure platform for their daily usage, and therefore accessibility should also be an important part of our ethical design roadmap.

We are aware that the road is long and that the Librem 5 is a challenging project, so we need some design foundations that favor convenience as much as it can lighten the development effort to get there.

Apps on existing platforms compete for your attention

With today’s smartphones, you usually get a minimal set of functionalities out of the box and go through installing diverse applications for your different needs. Usually those applications are proprietary and are designed around their own unethical business model; hence they compete against each other for your attention and have their own set of features to be used within the scope of the application only.

This can lead to a lot of redundancy and confusion in terms of functionality. A particularly blatant case is communication applications, where we see each application handling their own contacts logic, their own locked down and isolated protocol, and where a ton of applications will implement the same things for the same purpose (making calls and sending messages), with the focus typically being the flashiest application to attract and retain the most users. Let’s illustrate how ridiculous this is, conceptually:

Envisioning a harmonious app ecosystem

In the real, natural world, sustainable ecosystems are made of biological entities interacting together in harmony or symbiosis. This is what makes life possible over the long term.

The digital world of Free/Libre & open-source software, particularly in operating systems, is highly similar to the natural ecosystem. In this world, there is no such thing as isolating off or protecting a technology if you want to be part of the system. Business models and interests are completely different from the world of proprietary software. Best practices favor reuse and integration, improving user experience, reducing technical debt, increasing software quality and lowering development costs, with a “collaborative” system where different applications from different authors are made to work together.

The Purpose is the Feature

The idea behind the PureOS design guidelines is to replace the concept of standalone, independent and feature-competing applications with a concept of small, single-purpose, cross-integrated applications—that would interact between each other to provide a unified experience across the device (and beyond). Those small applications can be seen as “features” of the system. 1 purpose = 1 feature.

Therefore, the Human Interface Guidelines’ main principles regarding “features” development would be :

  • Don’t see applications as independent programs but as “features” that have a single purpose and that interact with each other.
  • One “feature” application is guarantor of the security of the data flow going through it. Only make your “feature” application share data with “trusted” features or networks and in a secure way.
  • Make a “feature” application focused on one single purpose (an email client is not an address book nor a calendar)
  • Make your “feature” application rely on existing features (an email client should rely on the existing address book and the existing calendar “features”)
  • Avoid redundancy. Don’t try to reinvent existing applications. Improve them instead.
  • Setup your “feature” application by default. Make it work out of the box.

Advantages

On the user’s side, the features of the device are easy to spot as they are made available through single-purpose applications displaying an obvious name. For example, the “Call” application is made to make calls, no matter the technology used behind that (e.g. Matrix, phone, voip). The “Messaging” application is used to send instant messages, no matter the technology used behind that (e.g. Matrix, SMS, XMPP). The “Contacts” application is used to manipulate and store the contacts information to be used by the “Call” and “Messaging” applications.

On the developer’s side, applications are as simple as they can be, the use cases are limited, all the logic that is not related to the main purpose of the application is delegated to other programs, which makes the application easier to design, implement and maintain.

Data belongs to the user, not the application

In this collaborative application system, where applications can interact with each other in harmony, data is not limited to the application’s logic anymore. Applications are acting as services, or “data providers”, to each other. Data can flow from one application to the other, from one device to another, from one network to another.

This concept implies the separation between data and functionality where the data belongs to the user only. The application that manipulates it is guarantor of its integrity and security.


Please note: these are guidelines, representing an overall vision. Guidelines are there simply as a way to guide application design, and to suggest best practices for application developers in general. Given that a GNU+Linux distribution like PureOS is an open platform where thousands of applications are available independently (as long as they are freedom-respecting!), you are not obligated to conform to these design guidelines to be able to distribute your application through Debian and PureOS. Furthermore, these design plans represent a broad long-term plan, not necessarily a guarantee of what will be happening “immediately” in the first released version of the platform that ships, your mileage may vary, etc.

Librem 5 puzzle pieces starting to come together—graphics, adaptive applications, docs and SDK

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

Design report #3: designing the UI Shell, part 2

Peter has been quite busy thinking about the most ergonomic mobile gestures and came up with a complete UI shell design. While the last design report was describing the design of the lock screen and the home screen, we will discuss here about navigating within the different features of the shell.

The mock-up on the right describes the main navigation principles. It shows the basic gestures that can be used to navigate through the different features of the shell.

From top to bottom:

  • (N) – Pulls down the full list of notifications.
  • (S) – Pulls down the full list of system settings.
  • (Q) – Reveals the most frequently used settings.
  • (W) – Quick launcher (to quickly access the communication features).
  • (A) – (3 seconds) Reveals the list of running applications.
  • (H) – Navigate back to the home screen.

And below are a few more mockups illustrating additional planned features of the Shell:

  • The multitasking overview screen that is revealed through the gesture (A) shows a carousel of all running apps along with their icons to make them easier to spot and access in a touch.
  • Swiping up from the bottom of the screen, from gesture (H), brings back the home screen
  • The “quick launcher” from gesture (W), in this example, is launching a list of (favorite) contacts for a quick access to the communications features.

An experience for people first, not just “app stores”

Now that we have defined the main features and gestures of the shell, it should be time to take care of the applications’ interfaces next.

If the Librem 5 was “Yet Another Android phone,” I would say “Go! Let’s make a bunch of apps!” But the Librem 5 is not just a regular phone, and Purism is very different from Apple and Google in term of philosophy and business model—they have been focusing on having the “biggest” app stores, selling apps, and mining data… and we don’t do that.

Therefore, before hastily moving forward with designing applications interfaces “like the other platforms”, not only must we study the current state of the mobile industry in term of User Experience, we must also try to think on how to improve it with a user-centric paradigm instead of necessarily app-centric. I think that, in some ways, there are many areas where the Librem 5 can bring greater simplicity, making iOS and Android look over-complicated in comparison. It may sound crazy to say that, but bear with me for a moment, we’ll get back to this later on.

By understanding a few concepts, we can try to define some human interface guidelines that will help getting a better user experience by default. This won’t prevent the phone to remain a highly customizable FLOSS platform—it will just help making the Librem 5’s “out of the box” experience more useful for everyone.