Linux laptop manufacturer Purism

Social Conscience

© Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

© Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Article from Issue 217/2018

At Purism, a company specializing in Linux laptops, social and ethical considerations are as important as profit.

The number of smaller vendors offering PCs and laptops with preinstalled Linux has been growing steadily in recent years. Many of these vendors provide extensive adjustments to hardware and software to provide a unified and customized product.

These laptops typically start with barebone cases from the Far East, which the companies then fully assemble and provide with a Linux operating system. In Germany, Tuxedo Computers [1] provides preinstalled systems tailored for Linux. In the UK, Entroware [2] and Station X [3] rank at the top of this segment. In the US, around 10 suppliers share this market, with the largest of these vendors being System76 [4] and Purism [5].

This article takes a closer look at Purism, a company designed around the principle of social entrepreneurship. In addition to its social consciousness, the company pays particular attention to security and privacy protection with its Linux laptop products.

Social Entrepreneurship

Purism, founded by Todd Weaver in 2014, is headquartered in San Francisco, thus enabling the company to choose Social Purpose Corporation (SPC) [6] legal status, which only exists in Washington, Florida, and California in the United States.

Unlike nonprofit organizations, SPCs are profit-oriented companies, but they place a higher value on social and ethical criteria than on profit maximization. This form of entrepreneurship is also becoming increasingly popular in Europe [7]. The objectives of Purism from an SPC perspective [8] are summarized in the box "Purism's SPC Statutes."

Purism's SPC Statutes

In its statutes, an SPC formulates its goals in social and ethical terms. Purism is dedicated to ensuring the security, privacy, and freedom of its products' users, and the hardware and software offered by Purism must comply with the free software philosophy. The company's organization aims to conduct business in a manner that has a positive effect on any or all of the following areas: the company's employees, suppliers, and customers, as @KE:

Purism seeks to produce high-quality hardware preconfigured with free software. In doing so, the company always works actively to guarantee the customer the greatest possible freedom and security, as well as the best possible privacy protection. Right from the start, one of Purism's goals was to be the first modern laptop manufacturer to receive a recommendation from the Free Software Foundation (FSF) for its products. This was achieved for the in-house PureOS [9] distribution in December 2017 [10].

Purism launched its business in 2015 with a crowdfunding campaign [11] on the Crowd Supply platform for the Librem 15 laptop (Figure 1). Instead of the targeted $250,000, the campaign raised just south of $600,000. To achieve its goals, Purism designed its own motherboard, which the in-house hardware designers are successively expanding (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Purism's first laptop, the Librem 15, is a well-equipped laptop financed by crowdfunding.
Figure 2: Designing its own motherboards and exacting adherence to the manufacturer's specifications are Purism's top priority.

Kill Switches

While most laptops without proprietary parts in the kernel, firmware, and operating system usually lag behind the current state of the art, Purism's goal is to implement these principles on high-quality and up-to-date hardware. The first Librem 15 used a fifth-generation Intel i7 CPU and was able to address up to 32GB of main memory.

One of the special features was kill switches for WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as for the webcam and microphone. These components can be completely switched off at the push of a button using the hardware switches on the side. Trisquel GNU/Linux [12] was used as the operating system for the device's first edition.

When Purism buys hardware components, the developers follow a certain order when evaluating the options: First, they want the hardware to give the future owner as much freedom as possible. Second, the components' quality and durability take priority. Only then is it a matter of price, availability and other details. Thus, the customer and their interests are represented at the negotiating table, so to speak, as early as the component selection phase.

Coreboot Included

Although Purism aimed to replace the proprietary BIOS with the free coreboot right from the outset, this was only achieved in early 2017 with the Librem 13 v1. Coreboot is now standard on all Purism devices. It turned out that the use of state-of-the-art hardware came with some pitfalls, such as Intel's much criticized, faulty Management Engine (ME).

Purism succeeded in neutralizing Intel's ME and deactivating it completely in October 2017 with the help of re-engineering specialist Youness Alaoui [13]. In 2017, the company also decided to develop a 5-inch Linux smartphone (Figure 3) in addition to the 13-inch and 15-inch laptops and a planned tablet. Since the failure of Firefox OS and the discontinuation of Canonical's Ubuntu Phone, this difficult terrain has been more or less unexploited; all previous attempts in the Linux smartphone segment have been denied commercial success.

Figure 3: The Librem 5 smartphone is between 5.5 and 5.7 inches in size and offers several Linux operating systems from which to choose.

This does not detract from customers' interest in an alternative to Android and iOS, as the crowdfunding campaign for the Librem 5 cellphone showed: Instead of the targeted $1.5 million, it raised more than $2 million, at a Librem 5 price per unit of almost $600. Purism is collaborating with the KDE, Gnome, Matrix, and Nextcloud communities on developing the Librem 5 (Figure 4).

Figure 4: In addition to the early development phase of a Gnome surface shown here, the Librem 5 will also support KDE Plasma Mobile and Ubuntu Touch.

The Librem smartphone's operating system will continue to be based on PureOS, and the interface will be Plasma Mobile – a Gnome interface is under development. Purism recently secured the services of the Berlin-based Gnome developer and UI/UX specialist Tobias Bernard. The Librem 5 is scheduled for launch in early 2019.

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