No Gmail, no App Store — using an ultra-secure smartphone is like ‘taking a step back into the 1990s’
is So-called “hardened” phones, like Purism’s Librem 5 phone and Communitake’s IntactPhone, have a variety of built-in security measures that aren’t commonly found on smartphones. They also run on custom software built with privacy in mind. But those benefits come with compromises: There’s no Google Maps, no Gmail, no Instagram, and most important, no access to Google’s enormous app store. They also won’t come with the flashy new features found on today’s newest smartphones, like a triple-lens camera.
“You think about high-profile people, they want the cool toys too,” Charles Henderson, the global head of IBM’s X-Force Red security team, said to Business Insider. “If you’re telling somebody, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great phone that does half of what your current phone can do,’ then that’s not exactly the best sales conversation to have.”
Few people know this better than Todd Weaver, the CEO of Purism, which makes laptops, services, and a smartphone optimized for security and privacy. The company’s Librem 5 smartphone runs on Purism’s own operating system, which is based on Linux instead of Google’s Android, and includes physical switches for turning off the phone’s microphone, cameras, GPS, cellular, and Wi-Fi functionality.
The phone began shipping to early backers in September, and the mass production model was originally slated to begin rolling out between March and June of this year. But it may be delayed due to supply chain constraints resulting from the coronavirus.
The Librem 5 doesn’t have access to Google’s Play Store and instead runs on the much smaller PureOS store, which only includes apps without third-party ads and trackers based on open-sourced code. That means those using the Librem 5 will probably have to access popular services like Uber, Facebook, and Instagram though the phone’s web browser, which sandboxes individual web pages so that these services don’t have access to any other data on your phone beyond what’s required to carry out the task at hand.
Even after just a few moments using the current version of the Librem 5, it’s apparent that it’s a stark contrast from most modern smartphones made by companies like Apple, Motorola, Samsung, and others. It’s noticeably thicker, the apps are limited, and the software itself is less polished.
“Using a minimalist phone is kind of like taking a step back into the 1990s,” Marc Rogers, a white-hat hacker and head of cybersecurity at Okta, an enterprise identity management service, said to Business Insider.”You’ve almost got a feature phone again, and it’s hard to give up some of those features.” (Insider Inc., the publisher of Business Insider, is an Okta client.)
Weaver says that Purism has shipped hundreds of units of the Librem 5 since its September launch and estimates that number will jump to 50,000 by the first half of 2020. That’s a far cry from the millions of iPhone units Apple sells in a single weekend. Apple no longer discloses iPhone unit sales, but back in 2015 it said it had sold more than 13 million units of its iPhone 6S and 6S Plus during their first weekend on the market.
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