In pursuit of Purism

Parent’s choice

With increasing sales of two laptops marketed on a premise designed to appeal beyond traditional GNU/Linux users, we asked Weaver who he thought his customers were.

“Free software supporters and GNU/Linux users, of course – a no-brainer,” he responded, but, “beyond these primary users – security-concerned CTOs, CIOs and business executives. And parents, buying for children to use a device whose privacy and security they’re comfortable with.”

From user feedback, it seems the recent highly publicised ransomware attacks and Vault 7 leaks have raised customer concerns – Weaver gave us one direct customer quote: “I provided one to my daughter and now I have peace of mind that they are protected, especially with the threats coming out.”

In addition to business users for security, and CTOs and CIOs, giving them to their developers, Weaver says there's interest from “high net worth individuals,” who want some protection. However, software developers are “the largest group so far,” and we found the Librem holds up well against the Free Software developers’ favourite – the ThinkPad, even though the form factor means no mechanical keyboard. Weaver claims the Librem has his “favourite keyboard” with “near ThinkPad quality.”

The Librem laptop's keyboard is pleasantly tactile and good for touch-typing

Weaver cites hardware quality as a selling point for developers: “Hinges that last, a barrel connector for PSU not mounted on motherboard, 16GB of RAM by default”. Returning to the non-traditional Linux buyers, we asked him how do these parents hear about Purism?

Weaver mentioned reviews in TechCrunch and other more consumer-oriented gadget websites, but also simple word-of-mouth. CTOs and CIOs tend to be asked at social occasions ‘what laptop should I get for me or my child?' And this is how the company has reached “the next ring of audience,” as they can be recommended for 'security bundled with convenience.'

This is seen most obviously in the Pure Browser – Firefox with Mozilla’s security enhancements, and plug-ins like Privacy Badger and uBlock origin to prevent tracking. Although GNOME’s own browser – GNOME Web (previously known as Epiphany) – is “making great progress.”

Trojan freedom

We asked Weaver whether this security focus was a way to carry software freedom into people’s devices? “It’s not by accident,” Weaver admitted. “Security is very much what the market wants, and to solve that with any credibility you need free software.” For example, “launching a ‘privacy phone’ based upon Android, [with its proprietary components] has no depth of credibility. We’ve gone as deep in the stack as possible – we go deeper down than anyone else. The only way [to go] with any credibility is free software.”

We asked about the pain points of trying to free up the entire stack; what the next challenge is and what’s hardest to fix? “We do: apps, operating system, the kernel and the bootloader,” says Weaver. The next layer is coreboot replacing the BIOS, then “we have neutralised Intel Management Engine, one of the worst [challenges]. It has a number of partitions; we have removed the network partition, amongst others – taking chunks out, making some sig checking work.”

With the next layer it’s firmware and wireless cards: "We’re pushing NVMe drives, not SSD – they’re already available as an option. In the future as default.” Discussing what counted as software, Weaver mentioned the FSF definition: “If software is updatable, source must be available.” With that part of the stack, Librem is the freest Intel-based laptop available.

Of course, there are OpenRISC projects, such as the rather wonderful Olimex Teres-1 DIY laptop that some readers may have seen at FOSDEM. “We’re following OpenRISC efforts and RISC V,” Weaver told us, but he feels that the level of performance is not yet ready.

The hardware kill switches on present and planned Librem devices are a simple yet thoroughly convincing demonstration of Purism's commitment to privacy; “a differentiator for us – it will be on the phone, too.” We discussed phone cameras and Weaver mentioned prototyping a cover over the lens combined with an HKS, which gave the additional feature of switching on the camera – allowing for the possibility of jumping straight to the camera app in the manner of the old Sony K750i of pre-smartphone days, when OS sluggishness would not cause you to miss a photo opportunity.

The Librem 5 phone will offer greater privacy and security

IP-native phone

The phone, running PureOS – Debian/GNOME, was revealed as not just a logical next step, but always the aim for a project designed to bring digital rights (and software freedom) to a mass audience. The laptops – as well as being successful pieces of kit in their own right – have given Purism, says Weaver, “three years of hardware supply chain,” and made PureOS ready for this next stage.

Initially, the phone will be all about “communication and encrypted communication,” with “phone, messages, video call, browser,” and all else later – although PureOS will allow users to add what they want to the “complete free software stack,” and with USB Type-C says Weaver “a convergence device.”

Another part of the GNOME 3 family playing a key role in the phone’s secure communication abilities is Matrix.org, which is slowly bringing together the many siloed means of communication we have. This and the phone’s IP-native nature mark out a far better path for the development of consumer communication devices.

Weaver reiterated that “digital rights are trending down the wrong path with iOS and Android; we’re respecting rights.” Asked about the Ubuntu Edge’s failed $32 million (£24 million) campaign target, he said it was “30 more than needed,” and now the Librem 5 campaign has launched the target to build the phone is a relatively modest $1.5 million (£1.1 million). We note that Ubuntu Edge managed $12 million (£9 million) worth of pre-orders.

Weaver says that the Edge was “not focused on security and privacy" and sees software freedom as the "third leg of that stool, a broader market.” We talked about the milestones on Purism’s journey so far. Weaver checked off the list. The company has proven people are interested by crowdfunding the Librem laptops, then there's the established hardware chain and building to order for the last two years. This year, orders are shipped directly from inventory as they continue to grow.

“Hardware is quite hard to do, especially as a startup,” says Weaver. The challenge is in cash locked in stock, and Purism is funded solely by revenue and small investors. “We’re a Social Purpose Corporation in articles of incorporation,” something available in Washington state only in the last four years, but very similar to the decade-old Community Interest Company structure in the UK.

Purism’s ‘Freedom Roadmap’ shows it to be a couple of steps away from being the first manufacturer of brand new laptops to ever receive the Free Software Foundation’s Respects Your Freedoms (RYF) certification. And with ambitions to go beyond that and free all drive firmware, even schematics, truly free hardware now looks a realistic prospect.

This feature was first published in issue 183 of Linux User & Developer