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If you are as excited about the Librem 5 as I am, you will want to show it to all your non-techie friends and family. “Look, it’s a Linux phone!”, you’ll say. They may be briefly impressed with the terminal, which evokes The Matrix to the uninitiated, but after brief fiddling, they will fail to share your joy. “Why,” you may ask, “why don’t they get it?”

That’s because there’s a chasm of understanding between you. I was on its other side once.

A long, long time ago, I met an owner of a Jolla phone at a conference. I had never seen it before, and I was excited to try it. But after I swiped around, tried out a few apps, and when the novelty of the user interface wore off, I ended up unimpressed. Yes, it was a phone. Yes, it had apps, just like mine. But I didn’t come across anything exceptional. What went wrong?

On the way back home, I realized that nothing went wrong: on the surface, the Jolla phone was just a phone. That’s what I saw then, and that’s what your family will initially see in the Librem 5. But the amazing thing about it takes longer to discover: its personality as a Linux phone.

Think of it as of dating: what you can see on a first date is how attractive someone is. But it takes longer than that to learn what really matters about them, before you commit to a relationship. And oh dear, look at the relationships people have with mainstream phones and apps! If apps were people, it wouldn’t fly at all. Here’s how I would translate some common behaviors:

  • When you are bombarded with ads: “My mum says you need to shave/cook the way she does/stop wearing sweaters/…”
  • When an application stores your stuff in the cloud unencrypted: “I sent a copy of our kinky texts to my mum. You know, to keep them safe.”
  • When you get spammed by random notifications: “Are you there??? Okay, just checking.”
  • “This app needs access to your contacts” = “I need the phone numbers of your parents and cousins.”
  • “Enter your payment information” = “I need your payment card.”
  • When you call the doctor unencrypted: “Mum, what does a proctologist do?”
  • When you talk about weed unencrypted: “I already told your parents!”
  • When you cannot install other app stores: “You can hang out with others, but only when I’m there too”.
  • When you aren’t given a choice to block access: “It’s my way or the highway!”
  • When the phone stops getting security updates: “I don’t like our car any more so I left it unlocked.”
  • When an application you like gets banned from the store: “I didn’t like your fishing gear so I threw it away.”
  • “This app needs access to your location” = “You must always tell me where you go.”
  • When your Google (or other)account gets blocked for no reason: “I am leaving and I’m taking the dog with me.”

Oof, that’s a damning picture. But people using mainstream phones are so used to most of this that they can’t imagine there is another way. They won’t see the personality of the Librem 5, unless you patiently show it to them. But how?

You have to realize that what makes Librem 5 special is the community around it. Community isn’t something you can simply show. But you can describe it: Linux users value openness, and have little patience for those who abuse their trust. For example, when Ubuntu partnered up and sent desktop searches to Amazon, people rioted. Firefox, as the last big bastion of the open browser, is under constant scrutiny. As a result, you will scarcely see ads or snitches on Linux.

With some skills, you can show practical effects of the community’s openness. Most apps are completely open. When I used the Nokia N900, I noticed that my notes app was broken. Instead of begging the author to fix it, I could take the code and fix it myself, without asking anyone for permission. Same goes for the Librem 5 (even if you aren’t a seasoned coder, I encourage you to create your own layout for Squeekboard).

What you can’t show so easily is how the openness affects longevity. The Raspberry Pi is a minimal Linux computer from 2012, and it’s still supported in 2020, after 8 years. I see a similar fate for the Librem 5.

Of course, someone may interrupt you and ask about Facebook. Well, community is not a perfect protection. While the chances of ending up in an ugly relationship are lowered, the ultimate choice is still yours. If you insist on using Google or Facebook, I don’t think you could ever escape the ads economy, even on the Librem 5. But you won’t be forced into anything before you even begin (choose whichever app store you like! No forced cloud!).

As you can see, that was a lot to unpack. So don’t be disappointed when your friends don’t instantly fall in love with the Librem 5. It’s not their fault. Instead, be patient, and direct their attention to the personality. Let them get used to the thought that the smartphone world can be different.

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