[Tinkerphones] New LetuxOS Kernels and some tricks and thoughts

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Tue May 21 14:12:22 CEST 2019


On Tuesday 21. May 2019 10.22.50 H. Nikolaus Schaller wrote:
> 
> What else is going on in the LetuxOS eco-system?
> 
> We now support MIPS devices, not only ARM. Well one. The Imagination CI20
> board. Just do "makesd ci20" to get a first SD card.

I'll have to stop procrastinating and try this now. Well done for getting to 
the bottom of the kernel configuration problems, too!

> Behind the scenes, we have debootstrapped mipsel variants of the Letux
> Debian images. And adapted the kernel defconfig so that we get a CI20
> (Ingenic JZ4780) compatible kernel.
> 
> What is the motivation behind supporting yet another board (and not fixing
> all others first)? The main aspect is that the jz4780 also contains an SGX
> 544 GPU - like the OMAP5. This should help to get the SGX drivers working.

It might also help get the Letux 400 Minibook supported by a modern kernel as 
well. :-)

[Exciting PyraPhone and other news]

> On a very general view, we have achieved a lot, but still not enough to get
> the LetuxOS eco-system into a self-sustaining mode. What is lacking?
> 
> * users are missing because software is not good enough for daily use
> * hardware is missing because potential users complain about missing
> high-quality software
> * developers to polish the software are missing, because of missing (new)
> hardware
> 
> You see the vicious circle? Ideas how to magically break it?

I ended up ranting a bit about this again recently. But it just takes a glance 
at the state of the smartphone market to see where some of the problems are 
and where we might be able to offer solutions. I'm sure most people on this 
list already know everything that I write below, but it is sometimes worth 
reflecting on a situation to remind ourselves of the value in the things we 
do.

Let us start by investigating what kinds of sustainable choices are available 
for smartphone purchasers. It might be nice to consider the conventional 
sustainability and ethical production criteria (and we should do so), but with 
our backgrounds we should start with an evaluation of the software on any 
given phone because this is often the limiting factor in the phone's 
longevity:

 * Is the software up-to-date or upgradeable to bring it up to date?
 * Can the user build it all from sources?
 * Can the user deploy all the built software?
 * Will it always be possible to upgrade and use new software?

Given the way phones are produced and sold, the answer to these things is 
generally "no". Sure, the first answer may be "yes" if you buy a brand new, 
top-of-the-line phone, but it will eventually be "no" as well. The producers 
just want you to replace your phone and hope that this will be an acceptable 
solution, which it is not:

https://www.smart.uio.no/news/swap-svitsj-and-burn-baby%21.html

Also, there tend to be very firm restrictions on deploying new software, 
particularly at the lower levels. So, it is all very well the producer 
offering a bundle of sources on their licence compliance site, but if they 
don't let you deploy the software, it is all a charade and fails to empower 
the end-user.

Naturally, there are choices like Fairphone which focused on conventional 
sustainability issues first and arrived at the software issues later. Support 
for updated software is apparently better on the second Fairphone model, but 
there are still fundamental limitations to that support. And currently, only 
refurbished units are available because production has been discontinued.

With this background, it is then worth looking at "community" initiatives that 
try and remedy the software situation. This seems to involve the following:

 * Pure Free Software distributions (like Replicant)
 * Hybrid distributions that favour GNU/Linux (like PostmarketOS)
 * Hybrid distributions that favour Android (like LineageOS)
 * Application distributions derived from the Android Open Source Project
   (like OmniROM and a bunch of others)

Maybe I conflate or confuse some of these things, particularly the latter 
ones. But it is worth looking at which devices they tend to support. The 
latter ones seem to have broader device support, but they also appear to be 
focused on reworking the applications, decluttering the user experience, 
"removing Google", and so on. Just like products with only older Linux kernel 
support, the time will inevitably come when newer distributions and 
applications just cannot be used.

The former initiatives are more useful because they hint at which hardware can 
be usefully supported. In their device guides you will tend to find GTA04 
mentioned because it actually offers desirable things for these initiatives: 
documented and supportable hardware, software that is openly and sensibly 
developed (within the constraints of Linux kernel development, at least). 
Things like the GTA04 should be dream devices for these efforts because the 
reverse engineering aspects usually required are practically eliminated.

So, this is a long way of arriving at the conclusion that the hardware and 
software efforts around LetuxOS have natural partners in the form of software 
initiatives targeting mainstream devices. There should also be partners 
amongst Free Software organisations: a mailing list run by one of these was 
the venue for my recent rants. People developing Free Software user interfaces 
should also engage constructively with these efforts.

However, my frustration is that consumerist tendencies get the better of some 
people, that hardware projects in particular are underappreciated because 
people think that they can "shop around". Who cares if some project fails when 
there is always another that might deliver? The problem with this is that all 
of these projects will fail without dependable support from those who would 
actually benefit from them.

So we have to get these natural partners to realise that their own efforts are 
in jeopardy if they fail to support the initiatives being nurtured on this 
mailing list. It just isn't a sustainable and practical solution to recommend 
very old mainstream phones that were saved from the normal channels, maybe 
even refurbished, as the FSF does: Free Software users need hardware products 
to be continually available so that they may actually run their software.

And the hardware products need to be given proper attention and commitment 
from the software projects, rather than being treated as toys to be discarded 
when something newer comes along.

Paul


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