Brussels / 1 & 2 February 2020


Interview with Merlijn B. W. Wajer and Bart Ribbers
Regaining control of your smartphone with postmarketOS and Maemo Leste. Status of Linux on the smartphone

Photo of Merlijn B. W. WajerPhoto of Bart Ribbers

Merlijn B. W. Wajer and Bart Ribbers will give a talk about Regaining control of your smartphone with postmarketOS and Maemo Leste. Status of Linux on the smartphone at FOSDEM 2020.

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Merlijn: I’m Merlijn Wajer aka ‘Wizzup’, a computer scientist and FOSS enthusiast from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I completed my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science at the University of Amsterdam in 2012, I work for the Internet Archive by day and I’m a (board) member of the Amsterdam Hackerspace by night.

Bart: I’m Bart Ribbers, also known as “PureTryOut”. I’m a typical nerd, having way too strong opinions on things most people don’t care about. I’m studying software development at the HAN College in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

Merlijn: Our talk will present a brief history of GNU/Linux on smartphones, present the current state of affairs, and zoom in on two projects: postmarketOS and Maemo Leste. We will dive into what is currently possible on (specific) smartphones, how Free (as in Freedom) various devices are, what the goals of different projects are, and what lies ahead.

On a personal level, I (Merlijn) have been running GNU/Linux on my (smart)phone for more than 10 years, in the form of Nokia’s Maemo. Two years ago, together with a few others we decided to bring this GNU/Linux smartphone OS to the modern era, basing ourselves on the latest Debian stable release, liberating (rewriting) components while we do so, while attempting to stay API compatible.

We hope to bring to the community an operating system for the community, by the community, free from any privacy issues and corporate interests.

Bart: Unlike Merlijn, I have never had the joy of running a proper Linux distribution on my phone(s). However, I’ve always messed around with custom ROMs and except for the first year of using an Android phone, I’ve never actually stuck with the ROM that the manufacturer pre-loaded on my device. Doing this I found out that you can extend the lifetime of your device by it, because you would often get a newer version of Android than your manufacturer would update you to. As nice as this is, I slowly realized this didn’t address the real problem: the fact that the operating system is specific to your device. Why can we run a generic Linux distribution on any laptop around you and have it run fine for 10+ years, but do I need a specific version of a specific ROM specifically made for my smartphone?

Putting regular Linux distributions on mobile makes this problem disappear, as any package upgrade will get pushed to every device running that distribution at the same time.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

Our hope specifically is to raise awareness about our projects and other GNU/Linux mobile operating systems and distributions, and to attract passionate developers to help us complete our dream of a usable and community maintained FOSS GNU/Linux device.

We expect mobile developers (who are working on mobile currently, or have in the past) to show up to the talk, but also lots of people who are just interested in running GNU/Linux on their device. Hopefully, after the talk, lots of them will be excited enough to be helping out (or trying out) our projects.

Q: There have been multiple attempts at getting a smartphone with GNU/Linux on the market, but none of them lasted for long. Why is that? Will it be different this time?

We would argue that Maemo with the Nokia N900 was actually quite successful at the time back in 2009, selling over 100,000 units in the first 5 weeks. We know what happened to Nokia after that — the main reason no one could pick up their work was because many of their components were not open source. The same is true for Sailfish OS by Jolla now — they use an open source base, but their user interface and key applications (like Android emulation) are not open source, and will die with them if or when they do. Jolla had promised to open source their UI many years ago, but they never came through on that promise, We don’t know why.

By creating an open source mobile ecosystem that is entirely open source, has no corporate backing (and no stakeholders), our work will not just disappear into the abyss. (It might go forgotten eventually, but it will still be there: for people to look at and hack on whenever they want).

Our aim is not to dominate the market, but to provide a place for people who want to use the system — not unlike Linux on the desktop — when did that (year of Linux on the desktop) ever happen? Yet we still highly value our Linux desktop environments — for a good reason, they provide us with a trustworthy platform free from corporate backing. I would argue that we need the same for our mobile phones.

NLNet wrote about why we need alternative mobile Linux systems. We thought it was quite well considered and raises some points that aren’t often raised as arguments for alternative platforms.

Q: 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of (F)OSDEM. What contributions has FOSDEM made to the advancement of FOSS?

Providing a place year after year where FOSS enthusiasts can come together we think has been very valuable, to get a bigger part of the community involved. Having a venue for developers to share their work with the world — arguably the most fun aspect of FOSS projects, is something we direly need and will continue to need.

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

Merlijn: Absolutely, I have been coming for over 10 years already. Too bad about the weather sometimes, though… (Hey — the Dutch always complain about the weather, so I figured I’d end the interview on that note.)

Bart: Massively! Like I mentioned in my introduction, I always have strong opinions on (technical) subjects that most people don’t care about. FOSDEM gives me a place to discuss these things with people that do care. Also, it’s very nice to see some real life faces behind the nicknames I always encounter in the Matrix rooms.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.