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End-of-life smartphone? Penguins at postmarketOS aim to revive it

Alpine-based distro runs on old mobiles abandoned by Android and their manufacturers

A Linux distro for smartphones abandoned by their manufacturers, postmarketOS, has introduced in-place upgrades.

Alpine Linux is a very minimal general-purpose distro that runs well on low-end kit, as The Reg FOSS desk found when we looked at version 3.16 last month. postmarketOS's – pmOS for short – version 22.06 is based on the same version.

This itself is distinctive. Most other third-party smartphone OSes, such as LineageOS or GrapheneOS, or the former CyanogenMod, are based on the core of Android itself.

The project is quite different. It uses the mainline Linux kernel, and a standard userland, to support a wide variety of devices. The theory is that not needing a manufacturer's outdated firmware or drivers means that pmOS can use more current components, direct from the various upstream Linux projects. The project's own wiki currently lists over 200 supported devices, including phones, tablets, and e-book readers, ranging back to the venerable Nokia N900.

They're not all equally supported, though. Most of them can can boot, many have Wi-Fi support, but currently just two actual phones work as phones: the open-source hardware PinePhone and the Purism Librem 5. Even saying that, though, the ability to connect to Wi-Fi and use an old device as a pocketable terminal could make obsolete hardware useful again.

As it resembles a normal desktop Linux, postmarketOS can run both and Wayland, and a choice of user interfaces, including a plain text console or the Xfce desktop.

These might not be terribly useful on a touchscreen-based handheld device without a pointing device, so more importantly there are a choice of phone interfaces, including the GNOME-based Phosh and the KDE-based Plasma Mobile, as well as the less-ambitious Simple X Mobile or Sxmo.

The Lomiri smartphone UI, formerly known as Ubuntu's Unity 8, is also represented in an external branch of postmarketOS project.

This isn't something you can put onto an old phone and give to your grandma just yet. It's still relatively early days, but it's a promising project. It reminds in some ways of the Armbian project, which aims to keep old single-board computers usable after their manufacturers stop updating them.

Mainstream Linux on phones has some way to go yet before it's as usable as it is on a desktop or laptop. (Stop heckling at the back there: it really is.) As is the open source way, there are various rival environments and applications, all working away trying to achieve the same ends – but because they're open source, they can help each other, sharing code and information and documentation.

Although it has a (very old) Linux kernel right at the bottom, Android itself isn't very Linux-like: everything above the kernel, from the Bionic C library and Toybox userland up to the Java-based app runtime, are very different.

Usually the hardware is quite capable, though. So long as you can unlock the bootloader and reflash it – and you know how to do that, or are willing to learn – it's great to see a viable alternative use for retired tablets.

THe British Computer Society previously bemoaned the impact of product lifecycles on the environment. According to the United Nations, 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2019. ®

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