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Interview with Plasma Mobile developer Bhushan Shah

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What are my options if I want to run my phone with Free Software? For our Upcycling Android campaign we interviewed Plasma Mobile developer Bhushan Shah about running a privacy-respecting and secure GNU/Linux phone ecosystem on your phone.

KDE is an international Free Software community founded in 1996, and KDE e.V. is an associated organisation of the FSFE. In 2014, KDE first released Plasma, a graphical workspace environment which became one of its core projects. Plasma Mobile is a Plasma 5 variant for Linux-based smartphones. Bhushan Shah is a developer in the Plasma Mobile project since 2015. We chatted with Bhushan to learn more about this promising project. In this interview Bhushan explains why using Plasma Mobile benefits one's privacy, and how to get started. Enjoy!

A phone running Plasma Mobile, and a team of developers

FSFE: Hello Bhushan 🙂 thank you for joining!

Bhushan Shah: Hello! Good morning! 🙂

FSFE: As a start we would like to learn a few things about you, like how did you first become interested in Free Software and how did you start working at Plasma Mobile?

Bhushan: Sure. My first exposure to Free Software was a Linux course at University, which made me interested in Linux and open source in general. As part of that I started writing articles for Linux news sites (Muktware), and that introduced me to the KDE community. Basically, as I grew closer to the KDE community as a user I started using my development skills to contribute back, and then I never looked back. I was working with the KDE community as a contributor when they announced Plasma Mobile, and I was hired to work on Plasma Mobile by Bluesystems GmbH. That was in 2015, and after that I grew much closer to the Plasma Mobile project, both in technical terms and as a "movement" to provide an open alternative to Android/iOS 🙂

FSFE: What is your current role in Plasma Mobile?

Bhushan: Currently I am working as a developer and maintainer of the Plasma Mobile project. I should note that being the maintainer does not make me BDFL* 😉 and responsibility for each of the components still stays with all contributors. 🙂

FSFE: Perfect, because we would like you to share with us what is Plasma Mobile? How is it different to other mobile operating systems? Pretend we hear about Free Software for the first time.

Bhushan: Right. In purely technical terms, Plasma Mobile is a collection of various software components, but I'd like to think of it more as a ecosystem of mobile software which is open by nature and has a community-first approach.

Other mobile operating systems like Android and iOS have development done behind closed doors by large corporations and will only provide new releases as a either huge code dump or will not even provide a source code in some cases, while Plasma Mobile aims to provide a complete transparent development process where each change is developed together with the community, and is available with licenses that allow anyone to use, inspect and develop onward.

Our goal is that every user, developer, designer, translator can take part in the development and the community of Plasma Mobile and can work on improving it. As for what makes Plasma Mobile, again this is technical points, but Plasma Mobile includes a shell or user interface, applications, and distribution / base system for various mobile devices.

7 people in front of a garden and a building in a summer day
Bhushan Shah (second from left) in Akademy, the annual world summit of KDE.

FSFE: Sounds like a vast collaborative project. We would also like to learn what would you say to someone who has decided to opt for a Free Software operating system, and has to choose between an Android-based custom-ROM or a full GNU/Linux distribution, like Plasma Mobile. What are the main differences, and what should a user have in mind to make the right choice?

Bhushan: Right, this is a question which will yield 10 different answers if you ask 10 different people 😄

But ultimately it depends on what the user wants from their device. There are some use cases, for example banking or mobile payment applications, which unfortunately are not easily possible when you use the full Linux based distribution, as the market for such operating systems is still little bit of a niche and app developers do not support these distributions. That said, there are solutions like Waydroid which allow one to run such essential android applications on the GNU/Linux system.

If you do not have such use cases where you need an Android device in your daily life then a full Linux-based system is definitely a better choice, compared to let's say LineageOS or a de-googled device, due to software freedoms it provides. So the bottom line is, each user will have a different use case and while we can try our best to match user expectation, ultimately the user will have to make the decision here.

I think the main difference that will impact users is the app ecosystem available to them. While the Mobile Linux app ecosystem is growing, unfortunately it is not anywhere close to what Android and iOS have right now. We as a community and Free Software enthusiasts will have to work on improving this aspect of the Free Software mobile ecosystem. 🙂

FSFE: Thanks. What is the quickest way to start using Plasma Mobile? If I am looking to buy a new device and I am interested in Plasma Mobile, what are my options?

Bhushan: There are certain vendors like Pine64 and Purism, who have "Linux first" devices like PinePhone, PinePhone Pro, and Librem 5 which should support the Plasma Mobile without much hassle. Pine64 devices ship with Plasma Mobile as the default even, but if these are not an option for you for whatever reason, then the postmarketOS community is also working on adding support for off-the-shelf Android devices in the mainline Linux kernel. You can find a list of supported devices in this page.

FSFE: Great. And once we have Plasma Mobile, what are your most beloved apps you would recommend us?

Bhushan: Most distributions come with some basic set of applications like Dialer, SMS application, Clock, Setting applications etc. We have a list of applications on the Plasma Mobile website that you can go through.

My personal favourite, however, if you ask, is KDE connect for interacting and controlling other devices using Plasma Mobile devices 😉

previours of home page, calendar, calculator, and camera, in Plasma Mobile OS
Screenshots of Plasma Mobile

FSFE: Plasma Mobile states to be a privacy respecting phone ecosystem. How does Plasma Mobile secure peoples' privacy?

Bhushan: Right. A lot of applications and software in the current mobile ecosystem are built with one basic aim of tracking users and collecting multiple GBs of data about users.

Almost all of this is sold as "Improving user experience" or "features" so users have no idea that their data is being harvested. Do you want to activate your phone with voice? Do you want to share your live location with your friend? Do you maybe want to unlock your device with a fingerprint or eye tracking?

Most users will say yes to this and Android/iOS will mine this data, use it for targeted advertisements and in the worst case will share with state actors who want to spy on users. We at Plasma Mobile have committed to building a ecosystem where user privacy is respected, Apart from opt-in very basic telemetry kde.org does not collect any of the user data, and we work on adding the same set of user enhancements without hidden data collection or targeted advertisements.

In addition to this, being open by nature means that users are free to audit the application/software installed on their device for any anti-privacy features or hidden trackers 🙂

FSFE: The contrast with the dominant mobile ecosystems in matters of privacy is striking indeed. Going back to other devices - GNU/Linux systems are famous for being able to run on a variety of devices. Can I use Plasma mobile on other devices except phones, or is that planned for the future?

Bhushan: Yes, you can use Plasma Mobile on the tablet/desktop devices as well. In fact a lot of us developers develop Plasma Mobile by running it initially on the desktop 🙂 Some distributions offer Live Images that you can boot on your laptop to test drive Plasma Mobile.

FSFE: Sounds fun! As a last question, we would like to ask you what motivates you in your work for Plasma Mobile?

Bhushan: My motivation is two-fold. First is I very much believe in the vision of Plasma Mobile, and I would like to help the KDE community achieve that goal, and my second motivation is technology. I am a developer at heart and Plasma Mobile is supported by various technologies and developing on it is fun!

FSFE: Thank you Bhushan, for the interview and also for offering us a privacy-friendly alternative to the current mobile world. I wish all the best to the Plasma Mobile project, which contributes to software freedom.

Bhushan: Thank you very much!



* BDFL: Acronym for 'benevolent dictator for life' satirizes the power of the developers of Free Software projects who have the final say in a dispute.