Computers have us surrounded. Just about every piece of consumer electronics these days puts “smart” in front of the name, which means they embedded a computer that runs specialized software. The “smart” trend started with “smartphones” which marketers started calling cellular phones once they got powerful enough processors to run a general-purpose operating system and applications. The name “smartphone” was intended to differentiate them from “feature phones” which had a limited set of additional applications (calculator, SMS application, possibly a music player or a limited web browser). Feature phones were designed to make phone calls and send text messages, but smartphones were actually general-purpose computers that happened to have a phone and SMS application on them.
Today, a majority of people hardly ever use their smartphone as a phone and instead use it to chat, browse the web, and run applications–the same things they do on their desktop or laptop computers. Your smartphone is a pocket-sized general-purpose computer that’s more powerful than desktop computers from not that long ago, yet smartphones are prevented from realizing their full potential, are still marketed as special-purpose computers, and most people think of them that way. Why?
One of the neatest tricks Big Tech ever pulled was convincing people that phones weren’t general-purpose computers and should have different rules than laptops or desktops. These rules conveniently give the vendor more control so that you don’t own a smartphone so much as you rent it. Now that the public has accepted these new rules for phones, vendors are starting to apply the same rules to laptops and desktops.
One of the best examples of how the rules have changed can be found by comparing the Microsoft anti-trust trial from almost twenty years ago to smartphone vendors today. Microsoft was accused of abusing its monopoly power by bundling the Internet Explorer web browser into Windows for free to compete with the Netscape web browser which at the time was more popular but also had to be purchased and installed separately.
Now imagine in addition to bundling IE, Microsoft also controlled whether Netscape could be installed or updated on Windows, and blocked them, and you are closer to the current situation with phones. When Apple decided it wanted to add a parental control app to iPhones, it first blocked all competing apps in the name of security and only reinstated those apps months later after its own app got marketshare. Apple now is facing anti-trust scrutiny for this.
Starting in the `90s computers started getting all sorts of junk 3rd-party software pre-installed on them. Vendors realized they could get a secondary revenue stream by promoting games and other applications if they were preinstalled on top of Windows computers. This software was notoriously buggy and some of it caused Windows to crash (and some of it ended up being spyware), so one of the first things those of us who were in IT would do upon getting a new computer was to either painstakingly uninstall all the “junkware” or reinstall a vanilla version of Windows, depending on which was less work.
Now imagine a computer full of 3rd-party junkware and spyware, only you couldn’t uninstall it. That’s the situation we have today with Android phones (and in a notable case, with a U2 album on iPhones). Android allows applications to be marked as uninstallable and while Google uses this feature for some of its own applications by default, many vendors use the feature to make 3rd party junkware and spyware uninstallable as well.
When you bought a computer starting in the `90s you generally expected to get operating system upgrades for the life of the computer. In the Windows world you normally could upgrade to the next version of Windows years later, and you’d only replace hardware after the OS upgrades and applications got so bloated (along with the spyware) that the computer was too slow to use. Of course, those “slow” computers then got a new life for many more years after installing Linux on them.
Now imagine a computer that only lasted two or three years, after which you would no longer get OS and security updates. Even though the hardware was still fast enough to run the OS, if you cared about security you’d be forced to upgrade. That’s the situation we have with Android phones today. If you are lucky your vendor will let you update to the next version of Android at least once, and receive general updates for two years or three years. If you are unlucky your device may never upgrade to the next Android OS. Even flagship Google phones only promise OS updates three years from the date the phone first was sold and security updates for only 18 months after they stop selling a device. For instance, at the time of this article, Pixel 2 owners just lost guaranteed OS and security updates.
What makes the Librem 5 special is that it reclaims the full potential of what phones should have been all along: a general-purpose computer in your pocket under your control. It runs the same PureOS operating system with the same applications as our Librem laptops, Librem Mini, and Librem Server. Because it has real convergence, even though the Librem 5 is in a phone form-factor, it can function as a desktop when you connect it to a monitor or a laptop when you connect it to a laptop dock. Many people already use their phones as their primary computer, and some people may even be able to replace their existing laptop or desktop with a Librem 5, depending on their resource needs.
While other vendors try to add smartphone restrictions onto their laptops and desktops so they can control how you use them, we are taking the opposite approach. At Purism we want to bring the freedom of general-purpose computing we have long appreciated on laptops and desktops into a phone form factor. You control what applications go on the Librem 5, not us, and like our other computers, the Librem 5 gets software upgrades for life. The battery, WiFi/Bluetooth card and even cellular modem are removable and replaceable. Whether as a phone, a desktop, a laptop, or even a server, the Librem 5 is a general-purpose computer that fits in your pocket, how you use it is up to you.