The Open Source Phone Dilemma (Polylemma…)

For a decade or two I’ve periodically wanted an Open Source Phone with real privacy and security. From time to time various companies or groups would announce a project and I’d get interested again. Only to watch it whither and die.

I really don’t understand why. It isn’t all that hard to make a simple mobile phone OS. My best guess is that everyone wants to put way too much into the product “up front” and so mission creep and bloat kills the budget and the project. IMHO we need a KISS approach first, then flowery it up later. For that reason, I’m leaning toward making a Pi Phone first. It’s simple and well attested even if not very feature rich and phyiscally a bit clunky.

Here’s my latest DIY project, a smartphone based on a Raspberry Pi. It’s called – wait for it – the PiPhone. It makes use an Adafruit touchscreen interface and a Sim900 GSM/GPRS module to make phone calls. It’s more of a proof of concept to see what could be done with a relatively small form factor with off-the-shelf (cheap) components. I don’t expect everyone to be rushing out to build this one, but I had great fun in doing it, as it builds quite nicely on my previous projects, especially the Lapse Pi, a touchscreen time-lapse controller, and uses most of the same hardware.

What makes this different from the Timelapse controller is the addition of a a SIM900 GSM module, which is connected via UART to the Raspberry Pi. Also, I got myself a LiPo battery that would fit nicely between the TFT screen and the Raspberry Pi, so it could be used standalone, without any wires hanging off it whatsoever. Here’s the finished PiPhone.

Nice straight forward approach. COTS parts ( Common Off The Shelf ). Shown to work. Looks like a great first step into the roll-your-own-phone area.

There is also a port of the Devuan distribution to the Nokia 900 that is an interesting possible smartphone choice, but it isn’t clear how stable it is at present or how much of the phone parts are working. A big “Dig Here!” on that one just waiting for time…

The Nokia N900 is a smartphone made by Nokia. It supersedes the Nokia N810. Its default operating system, Maemo 5, is a Linux-based OS originally developed for the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. It is the first Nokia device based upon the Texas Instruments OMAP3 microprocessor with the ARM Cortex-A8 core. Unlike the three Nokia Internet tablets preceding it, the Nokia N900 is the first Maemo device to include phone functionality (quad-band GSM and 3G UMTS/HSDPA).

The N900 functions as a mobile Internet device, and includes e-mail, web browsing and access to online services, a 5-megapixel digital camera for still or video photography, a portable media player for music and video, calculator, games console and word processor, SMS, as well as mobile telephony using either a mobile network or VoIP via Internet (mobile or Wi-Fi). Maemo provides an X-terminal interface for interacting with the core operating system.

Experiences getting it installed and running, but not looking particularly “easy”…

This article looks at several options, and covers the slightly dismal history of false starts and promising efforts up in flames or sinking in the swamp.

This wiki looks at several different (mostly commercial) phone OS choices, but is a good ‘feature list’. It also lists Tizen (Samsung), Sailfish (originally a Nokia / Intel project now community driven), and Ubuntu Touch:

Of them, I like SailfishOS the most (on first glance).

The OS is shipped with the Jolla smartphone and tablet (the latter has been discontinued) and from other vendors licensing the OS. More or less unofficially the OS is being ported by community enthusiasts to third-party mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. The Sailfish OS can be used for many kinds of devices such as smartphones and tablets.

So another Dig Here! to find out just how well it works and is it ready for prime time (or even just to Phone Home!)

There are others “out there” too. Lost at the moment is an article that mentioned an Alpine Linux on a cell phone. If I can find it again, I like the idea of a very small router hardened Linux as the base operating system.

Then there is LineageOS:

How To Install Lineage OS On Any Android Phone – Root & Google Assistant
posted on
February 16, 2017

Cyanogen Inc announced the shutdown of CynogenMod build service in December 2016. It was a sad news for all those people whose life were depended on custom ROMs. Hopefully, CyanogenMod is not dead but it will continue as Lineage OS.

LineageOS is available for most of the device which already had CM14.1 or CM13 ROM for them. There are many phones for which Lineage OS is still not available but hopefully will be available soon.

We will guide through everything you need to do to install LineageOS so, even if you are doing this for the first time you don’t need to worry.

The method explained here is a universal method to install a Custom ROM so it should work for any device out there having a custom recovery installed.

We will also guide you on how to upgrade to Lineage OS without loosing your data, Root Lineage OS and Install Google Assitant on the go.

That kind of story is repeated often. Someone gets it running, then walks away. It rolls to community based and carries on, though the length of the carry-on can be limited.

It makes no sense to me. It only takes a few people to develop and maintain a Linux fork (provided you don’t try to do a complete do-over on it). All the technical phone stuff is largely handled by a glue on hardware module. But there must be some dragon in the woods, given so many scorched and maimed knights laying around…

In Conclusion

This is just a first blush look at options. Not even a full search of the names to investigate. I’m mostly posting it as a place to keep track of what I’ve already seen as I find other options to put in comments. Eventually this gathering of the list stage will enter a weeding stage and get cut down to a few final candidates. Then I can proceed to a roll-my-own-phone (at last).

Why do this? Because my old “flip phone” is finally reaching EOL. The battery is holding a charge for maybe 3/4 of a day unless you use it ;-) and some of the buttons are getting hard to read. I’d not mind having some smart phone features, but the astounding intrusiveness of snooping on my Android Tablet make it clear that Android is NOT my friend (and I’m unwilling to pay up for an iPhone). It does look like once again the only choice for real privacy and security is a DIY run. Though there is some hope. From that Sailfish wiki:

Cooperation and OS support

Jolla staff met with members of the Russian technology community to break ground on the new software and promote Sailfish OS, as part of Jolla’s BRICS strategy. As a result of those efforts, on 18 May 2015 the Russian minister of communications Nikolai Nikiforov announced plans to replace Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms with new software based on Sailfish. He intends it to cover 50% of Russian needs in this area during next ten years, in comparison to the 95% currently covered with western technology.

That’s a huge win and indicates it will likely survive. Russia knows they are buying pre-hacked people trackers when they get Android (and perhaps iOS phones) and also know they can review the SailfishOS code for security and privacy (and, unfortunately, to add their own intrusions into the version released inside Russia).

But still, that large a ‘downstream’ community will assure survival and growth.

So I’m still hopeful folks will ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ on privacy and security and we’ll be able to buy products that are clean and secure. But until that day, it looks like DIY is the only path open.

With that, any other candidates for review, or suggestions on preferences welcome! Anyone wants to try making an exemplar of one of the already done projects, feel free to post your experiences. I’m going to slog through the list of OS names (and add any more I run into along the way) and make a first cut triage, then pick a few finalists, then build something to test. While I’d rather just click and install a known working OS on a store available phone, it looks like that path does not yet exist; so a hacking we will go, a hacking we will go, high hoe…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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7 Responses to The Open Source Phone Dilemma (Polylemma…)

  1. philjourdan says:

    Here’s the problem with that. Linux had perfect timing. It was before Windows or a real Mac GUI (pre OSX was single tasking). So it did not have to be all things out the gate. it had to be a good command line OS, and it was. After Windows 95 (but really 2k) and then OSX, that window closed. People wanted it all up front. And that is your mission creep.

    Even OSX was bloatware from the start. Because it had to compete with both Win2k and pre MacOSX. Neither of which was everything, but both of which had a lot. And it took almost the entire resources of one of the largest tech companies in the world to do it. Jobs would never have gotten NeXT off the ground, because he did not have the capital (see BeOS). So when Mac shot themselves in the foot with clones, and needed a savior, he jumped at the chance. Why? It gave him the backing for his NeXT (which is what OSX is).

    I want an open source phone as well. And I do not need much in a phone (A browser and phone – the rest I can do without). But you and I are not a market.

  2. E.M.Smith says:


    “But you and I are not a market.”

    Yes we are!!! (Just a very very tiny one 8-)

    At present, Linux has a dozen GUI interfaces to choose from, it has a mobile interface, it has graphics, it has radio support. etc. etc.

    As evidence the number of folks who have gotten it to work in phones, it is not that hard (small team scale, or one person for the Pi Phone).

    FWIW, I was at Apple during the MacOS / BeOS / NeXT / etc. stuff. I lived it… On one occasion, one of our Engineers ported the Mac interface to an IBM RS-6000 in about 30 minutes on the floor of a “Trade Show” my group was running inside Apple (we brought in vendors for a trade show to our Engineering department…) so I have to state it just isn’t that hard to port from one “Unix like” to another… even on radically different hardware. (This was about 1990 when Apple moved to the PowerPC chips – which came out of this effort …)

    It was quite a hit with a crowd gathering around the guy to see the Mac running on a fast RS-6000 box… and the IBM guys looking a bit surprised and almost stunned ;-)

    I’ve participated in some minor ports and installs myself. Yes, it’s a PITA (mostly about drivers and word orders) but it doesn’t take an army of thousands… Most porting operations need under 1/2 dozen guys. Where you hit staff suckage if if you want to change a lot of stuff or add a lot of stuff that isn’t there.

    Maybe I’m looking at it from too close to the hardware and too far from the marketing department…

  3. Kneel says:

    You realise you can root your android phone and that most root kits also provide for network interface filtering on an app-by-app basis, right? This means you can quite literally say “this game only gets internet access when there is WiFi” or “this app gets no access to my address book, even though I told it that it could”. And that non-standard “ROM”s with some very cut-down “included” apps, weird and wonderful UIs and so on are widely available.
    I would not suggest this to just anyone and everyone, but having sysadmin experience, I think you’re safe.
    So Android is configurable well beyond what the “standard” phone settings can do. Being a propeller-head, I’m sure you can manage it :-) Yes, it’s a little daunting that you could brick your phone, but the instructions are in many places on the web and they all agree, so I tried it and it works great. Entry level Android phones are pretty cheap anyway…
    I think you should at least investigate this path before the full-on custom path. It may also be worth trying to build a “ROM” from sources – if you can do that, you can simply cut out the bits you don’t want after getting down and dirty. There are also emulators, very useful it you really want to get down to the hardware 0s and 1s.

  4. p.g.sharrow says:

    Hummmmm……….. I don’t recall encountering that word before. Is that a dictionary word or is it straight from the wordsmith’s forge? ;-) …pg

  5. E.M.Smith says:


    I don’t know if anyone else has constructed it before, but I have constructed it now. A Di-lemma is two choices that are in conflict or ambiguous so when there are many choices in such a state it would be a poly-lemma … at least from a tidy mind POV… but I used the (slightly wrong) conventional “dilemma” as the main word… despite there being many choices hard to choose.


    Yes, it’s possible to do that but then you get into the game of finding all the bits that are nasty and chopping them out. My expectation is that it would be easier to just install a release designed from the start to be private and secure. (Even though there’s the potential that none of the offered ones are actually that way, so a Dig Here! part being to asses that trait.)

    Essentially, I fundamentally do not trust Alphabet / Google to have done the right thing and do expect them to have put all sorts of data vacuums all over the place (and don’t want to take on the search load of going through it all to find out / remove / whatever that stuff).

  6. Steve C says:

    “Polylemma” looks good to me, it’s exactly the sort of word I’d have come up with. (The word for folks like us is “hyperlexic”!) You don’t need to get classical. A friend, years ago, coined the word “underworks”, which also self-defines to a techie who spends so much time tweaking it …

    Make that last comment “I fundamentally do not trust Apple / Google to have done the right thing and do expect them to have put all sorts of data vacuums all over the place”, and that’s why I don’t even have a mobile phone. Been keeping an eye on the fossphone scene since early openMoko years, but still waiting for that kit in a box …

  7. E.M.Smith says:

    @Steve C.:

    My time at Apple was long ago now, so the truth of it is fading in the rear view mirror, but:

    When I was there, there was a very strong element of folks devoted to liberty, privacy, and security. Even recently we saw Apple refusing to work for the FBI to break their own security. For that reason I trust them more than Google & Microsoft who have basically jumped in bed with TLAs at the drop of a dollar.

    That said: They can’t stand against that tide forever and recent noises about “cooperation” with China are not encouraging. So while I’d trust an iPhone in the USA today, the future will be different. Note: I’d not trust the applications on an iPhone today as they are not Apple products but are essentially “mystery meat” you must investigate; despite Apple doing some vetting for the Store.

    And that is why I’m doing the “roll your own” next phone instead of an iPhone.

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