With the early Librem 5 smartphones now shipping from their “Aspen” batch and recent Reddit discussions about the Librem 5 roping him in, former Purism CTO Zlatan Todoric has agreed to a brief interview on Phoronix.
Zlatan Todoric is no longer employed by Purism but was one of the original staff members going back to 2015 when they were primarily focused on shipping Linux laptops and then developed their privacy-minded smartphone ambitions. He’s been out since September 2018 but that also means his NDA has expired. Through this he’s also a Debian developer and contributor to other free software projects. So let’s welcome Zlatan and the opportunity to learn more about some of the history of Purism’s Linux hardware efforts.
Thank you Zlatan Todoric for taking the time to answer a few of our questions today. Would you mind commenting on your professional past and time spent in particular as CTO of Purism?
So as a student I was in Mechanical Engineering, particularly in Mechatronics (and gathering mostly knowledge about robotics and bionics which were my passion at the time) but through series of events I ended up shifting my interest entirely towards FLOSS world and especially Debian. From there on I went mostly into coding, starting from web and game development, then through system administration I ended in pure system and app coding which was reflected in my work for next couple of years.
During that time, as FLOSS youth, I was craving to get out of proprietary world and work on Free software and hardware, without any restrictions that you get by default while working on proprietary IP. I ended up chatting with Todd, CEO of Purism.
I wanted to make sure Purism becomes the FLOSS bastion, a counterpart to Apple (all my words and belief from day 0). When I joined, there were basically one developer and one sysadmin and Todd. There were couple of other floating around but none was really paid nor had something to do really. I was free to try whatever I had on mind. Godspeed ahead!
I gathered enough information to realize that PureOS at the time was not an independent distro but merely an rsync of Debian with different wallpaper and no real handling of archive, updates and development. Also Purism was using unreliable server host, used unpatched WordPress for its website, Cloudflare (which was blocking Tor and users were rightly unhappy with this because saying you’re a privacy oriented company and blocking Tor access was just not right), no backups of any kind and *A LOT* of false claims on website which many pointed out.
I went into fixing the website (wrote script for Tor whitelisting, moved to another provider, eventually removed Cloudflare, updated entire infrastructure behind and starting fixing the wording – as that was the face of company), gave clear instructions to developer on what to focus, created and automated backend for our sales (it was done manually before that) and started interviewing people. Interviewing people was hard, because our salary range was only around $1000 per month and only for couple of people. So we had people working for even less. I believed we could do this and make something great, so people got on board. We got an excellent developer Matthias Klumpp who started bringing up a proper infrastructure for PureOS (Klumpp and me know each other of course from Debian and he is superbly talented young person doing some innovative things that make our lives easier all while finishing his master degree in neuroscience!).
From there on we added sales person, support person, a sysadmin and started to look more serious while getting some traction with shipping. This was big deal, because Purism was almost two years behind shipping devices to most of customers and people were getting angry, totally understandable. We worked day and night but Todd’s partner (the company in South San Francisco that assembles Librems and also is man in the middle for China were all parts get produced and then shipped to California) were being mostly silent to us. Even with this disadvantage we somehow managed in getting financial surplus for months so we added a wordsmith, a wizard with words to make our website more clear, less false and inline with our true nature (at least what we believed was). He also had this friend which I interviewed and he ended up doing the famous Coreboot port which brought big plus in PR for us. Our salaries started raising, we added couple of more people and things started to look good. We even talked to Todd and became Social Purpose Corporation. Yay the good times.
During this exact same time, Todd was mostly silent, hardly anyone would have contact with him but he was hiring and firing, mostly financial people, on weekly basis. So Purism at the time of Coreboot dev hire, was only built by people who I hired and myself. That was the first time that things felt smelly, but hey, we were developing great things here, the atmosphere was great and people were happy. We even started to gather and foster some community around us.
Around this time Todd started to get more engaged and started to micromanage people with a lot of meetings, a lot of talking on his side but they were and probably still are very one-sided and unrealistic. “We will announce this and that, we must maintain this growth and grow even bigger because we need investments etc” on which we pushed back regularly saying this things are not only unrealistic but also will harm our relations with public because we can’t keep such promises. The end results was we were always trying to do damage control and things became stressful. Couple of more people joined but then it started to go down.
Todd talked about phone project, I did a year earlier research on it (with the help of community) and we came with possible hardware direction but I also laid out financial and time plans for such project. Entire group was on board with this (which was “no, we are not ready”), except Todd who just said that we are doing it in a month and we are starting one way or another that phone campaign.
This was very stressful time. Entire paychecks were cut during campaign for several people (including me, though later repaid us and kept promises on bonuses) and the campaign was going bad (as most of us predict) but then [Klumpp] and I talked about getting KDE community involved as they had Plasma Mobile which was pragmatic way to look at as phone OS base and Todd agreed that we contact them and make deal with them. There needs to be noted that Todd was for Plasma Mobile at that time, but then maybe and then seemingly not in the end. Anyway, this was a good decision and we gained traction, and on wings of that Todd went getting more PR momentum with GNOME, later also Matrix and Monero. THE MOAR THE BETTER! :)
I did ask several times how he got to that specific number ($1.5mil bucks for phone project) and that we can do it in such short time. There was never a single answer that made sense and only one answer actually ever “it will be $300 per device and some company said they would do it even if we hit only 5000 devices”. You need to realize this was before we even knew what materials we will use, how the phone will look and so on. So vapor all the way. Counting the investments and that it is already almost a year behind the schedule, I hate to say it really but “I was right”. I am truly sad with all this.
The campaign ended inside the goal, I gave up my bonus to be split between two employees with lowest salaries and we got people to create a phone team. From here on, there was basically two Purism groups, the old ones with me and the phone group who had almost no interactions with us and this was done on purpose. Things became more stressful on daily basis and tensions started to rise up…Coreboot developer left and in next week or two they were changing even more the contracts and the pressure was higher and higher (my salary was halved already for half year as well to put more pressure) so I made to myself clear – while I really do my best to help phone project, I very much disagree with it on many levels and the stress was just piling on all sides (I was basically working 18 hours a day for almost 3 years to make Purism what it is) so I gave my resignation.
I saw that Reddit exploded around revolt inside Purism and a lot of my name in it – I was not part of that group as I already have left before that but yes, they raised concerns and they all got fired. Purism is a not in a good shape and it was already in bad internally at the time I left. One example is inflating the numbers of Librem One campaign which I think Alan Pope noticed and called them out.
I am sad how things panned out, and I still have hopes in some directions but this is not what community should praise or rely on. Apple of FLOSS world will need to come another day.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment while serving as CTO of Purism?
Huh, hard questions. I would say gathering such group and do so much with so little. We were happy little group with big goals. And honestly, FLOSS world doesn’t lack the strength to pair Apple or Google or any giant, we just lack funds to unify into one group. So many talented people that I met through years and befriended, I am telling you, we can do miracles if we had just funds behind us and I hope someone (like group behind PIA or some other group) realizes this and takes the torch forward.
On technical side, I would say corebooting the Librems which made an effect on wider communities such as System76, and some bigger players to work on coreboot as well and that it is something we can and should have (especially a huge praise to fantastic Linux boot for servers people, Trammel Hudson and Ron).
What led to your departure from Purism?
As already stated, the toxic atmosphere and that I didn’t want to be the person that doesn’t really believe in phone project being done the way it was, especially in relations towards public. I would be pissed off if I was lied for something that I wanted so much.
What were some of the biggest issues being the “under-dog” organization in the competitive laptop/hardware space?
Not having leverage in China. Quantities matter there and getting only dozen or couple of hundred orders per month doesn’t really help. That said, the Librems are heavily overpriced but that is because Purism seemingly never tried to get better deal and the South San Francisco partner abused this so that is why Purism Librems are double the price they should be. I believe that if we had more realistic prices, it would be much better for Purism not only financially but also more talking about it, more of it in wild which in turn means much more orders, more happy customers etc. The innovation is not really that hard in this space because big players don’t try to really innovate as they have strong positions, so it wouldn’t be that hard to be good or better then most of big players even, but quantity leverage is hard to pass by.
What are your views on how the Librem 5 has come about as of the current “Aspen” batch with the information that is publicly available?
The information from Purism is just bonkers regarding this project. Todd’s tactic is too just blog into oblivion when you are not ready for something so you put spotlight somewhere else. The phone is not remotely ready, it will have proprietary blobs (otherwise it will not be ready for another decade) but, maybe this will be weird to some, I still have hopes that hardware wise it will be okayish maybe next year. The true questions is, will there be Purism next year. Regarding software, I am a GNOME users, but going GTK is just wrong decision, it is not on pair with Qt in this space and how Purism ended choosing this is even more sad story but for some other day. So much mixed feelings here to be honest but I will let users to decide what they want to gamble on.
Given the Librem 5, Jolla/Sailfish, PinePhone, and other efforts, what would you view as the future of Linux on smartphones?
I already commented on Librem5, Jolla has its own shady past and as far as I know Sailfish is still proprietary so it is not in the same league to be discussed but PinePhone is something people should actually put their eyes on. I know personally the main person behind Pine and I know people involved with the project. Pine is actually seriously going to do it, how it will pan in coming months is yet to be seen but from what I see and what I know, this project will happen and will continue to go on no matter what (which is the base Purism doesn’t have) and Pine is really involved with community. Pine is a true community project but with all the good parts regarding work in China aka the hardware production. Based on that Pine has much more advanced strategy (the person behind Pine company knows everything there needs to be known regarding how to do a phone and what you need to get it work with networks etc), a vibrant colorful community behind it and a realistic price tag, Pine is on path to make Linux phone a standard thing in FLOSS community. From there on, they can only improve.
Thanks Zlatan for enlightening us with his thoughts particularly on the Linux smartphone landscape and the inner-workings of Purism as a Linux hardware startup. More of Zlatan’s thoughts can be found via Twitter and if there are any follow-up questions raised in our forums he will work to answer them.
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