Oliver Smith on extending smartphone life-cycles with postmarketOS

Oliver Smith, Software Developer


I am a computer enthusiast who fell in love with the idea of running Free and Open Source Software on all my devices. This allows me to delve into the source code of software and troubleshoot issues by searching for error messages and examining related code. When I encounter a problem, I usually invest time in fixing it and contribute the solution upstream for the benefit of others. In 2016, I became dissatisfied with the smartphone industry for multiple reasons. One was the lack of open-source operating systems, with either minimal open-source components (Android) or closed-source systems (Apple). Another issue was the discontinuation of software updates for smartphones, even when the hardware remained perfectly functional.

Did this lead you to start postmarketOS?

Yes, indirectly. Initially, it was just a thought exercise. I spent approximately one year researching and creating the first proof of concept for postmarketOS, along with a development tool to facilitate contributions from others. Once I felt it was worth sharing, I dedicated a significant amount of time to refining the code, writing a blog post, and finally releasing it. After extensive research and trial and error, I chose to base postmarketOS on the well-established and minimalist Alpine Linux distribution.

About postmarketOS

PostmarketOS is an open-source operating system project designed to extend the lifespan of smartphones. Founded by Oliver Smith, the project aims to provide long-term software support and updates for smartphones beyond the manufacturers’ official support period. By leveraging the power of Free and Open Source Software, postmarketOS enables users to breathe new life into their devices and enjoy the latest features and security updates. With a strong community of contributors, postmarketOS continues to evolve, making significant advancements in infrastructure, user-friendly installation options, and accessibility considerations. The project is driven by the passion for empowering smartphone users and promoting the principles of open-source development.

How did the community react?

The community response was incredible! Within the first month, an overwhelming number of contributions started pouring in from people I had never met before. Most were friendly and knowledgeable, and some had even initiated similar projects in the past. Some community members had a substantial collection of unused mobile phones, eager to be revived with fresh software. I was immensely impressed and grateful for the community that formed around postmarketOS and how they aided its development. This alone made all the time invested before the project’s release worthwhile. Instead of collecting dust in some forgotten Git repository, postmarketOS gained active engagement and support.
PostmarketOS software on mobile device

Where does NGI come into the picture?

Thanks to funding from NGI (Next Generation Internet), we were able to make significant enhancements to postmarketOS across the entire stack. For instance, we expanded our infrastructure to automate the building of operating system images. These pre-built images simplify the installation process, as users can now utilize them instead of manually creating images through the command-line. NGI also facilitated the inclusion of a user-friendly on-device installer in these images, allowing for encrypted installations to safeguard user privacy in case of device theft. Additionally, depending on the smartphone model, users can install postmarketOS from an SD card to the internal memory. Besides providing financial support, NGI’s mentorship was incredibly valuable. It helped me recognise the significance of incorporating translation assistance into our software, especially for the parts that users directly interact with. On the other hand, translating development tools tightly integrated with English code is less crucial. This guidance from NGI truly made a difference in our approach to software development. Another fruitful conversation with an NGI mentor revolved around accessibility. To ensure postmarketOS is useful for everyone, we must consider accessibility and provide alternative means of interaction for users who cannot see the screen. Although we have more work to do in this area, I have already redesigned the initial on-device installer component to present all visual dialogs in text form as well. This lays the foundation for users to potentially control the installation process using voice commands in the future.
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