Sick of Android? Don’t want to be part of a proprietary ecosystem? Security and privacy are becoming increasingly important for smartphone users, but what is the answer?
Is it possible to abandon Android and iOS for another mobile operating system?
When you want an alternative operating system, Linux is usually the answer. But what Linux smartphone operating systems are available to install today?
1. Ubuntu Touch
Originally released by Ubuntu developers Canonical, Ubuntu Touch is currently being maintained by UBports. This means that Ubuntu’s abandoned mobile operating system lives on.
Ubuntu Touch’s approach to smartphones is intelligent, dealing with the lack of apps by providing social, news, and photo tools natively. This is done in the guise of Scopes, different pages of the Home screen that provide customized news, weather, apps, and social networks.
It works well, too, although there is always a time when apps are needed.
Perhaps Ubuntu Touch’s greatest strength, however, is Convergence.
This is a system, much like Microsoft’s Continuum and Samsung DeX, in which the mobile device is connected to a wireless HDMI device, keyboard, and mouse, and used as a desktop computer. The only real difference between this and your desktop Linux device is that the phone has an ARM processor.
Currently supported devices include the handsets where Ubuntu Touch came pre-installed, along with the OnePlus One, Fairphone 2, and Nexus 5 (Hammerhead). Many more are in active development, such as the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus 3.
2. Sailfish OS
Jointly developed by Jolla, Mer (a middleware stack developer), the Sailfish Alliance (a group of corporations) and community members, Sailfish OS is a continuation of abandoned operating system MeeGo, itself based on Maemo and Moblin.
The latest version of Sailfish OS is known as Sailfish X, which runs on Sony Xperia X devices. Unfortunately, Sailfish OS is not open source, and the free version is a time-limited trial.
The full version of Sailfish X will set you back around $50, and it’s only available within the European Union, Norway, and Switzerland. As noted on the website:
“…the use of our website and services to purchase Sailfish X outside of the Authorized Countries is prohibited.”
Sailfish OS has Android app support, so if that appeals, this OS is worth trying out.
Perhaps the most exciting option on the table is Plasma Mobile, a smartphone-focused spin on the popular Plasma, the latter deemed one of the best Linux desktop environments.
Having gained a lot of attention during 2017 (mostly due to Ubuntu abandoning Ubuntu Touch), Plasma Mobile’s aim is to become a “complete and open software system for mobile devices.”
Currently compatible with the Nexus 5 (Hammerhead) and OnePlus One, Plasma Mobile (based on Kubuntu) is also available for Intel-based PCs and tablets, thanks to an Arch Linux-based version.
There’s also multiROM support for the Nexus 5 (Hammerhead), enabling you to run Plasma Mobile alongside your preferred custom Android ROM.
Perhaps the best thing about the Plasma Mobile project is that you’re able to run desktop Plasma apps and widgets, as well as Ubuntu Touch apps. This gives the project a wider selection of apps than Ubuntu Touch.
Other Linux Mobile Projects
As of this writing, three other notable Linux mobile projects are underway:
Intended as a system to improve future Linux mobile projects, Halium’s aim is to “unify the Hardware Abstraction Layer for projects which run GNU/Linux on mobile devices with pre-installed Android.”
There’s also an intention to standardize other software and improve Linux access to audio, camera, GPS and other hardware.
As you may imagine, if successful, this will make it far easier to install Linux on smartphones.
A more complete project is coming in the shape of a mobile version of PureOS, the privacy and security-focused Linux distro from Purism.
Currently there is no way to download PureOS for mobile, but Purism’s first phone, the Librem 5, will be released in 2019. This will be the most secure and private mobile device yet, and much of this will rely on the PureOS operating system.
Describing itself as “a real Linux distribution on the phone” postmarketOS (pmOS) is a version of Alpine Linux for smartphones.
Currently in early development, the aim of pmOS is to create a sustainable mobile OS, one with long-term support.
A wide number of devices can run pmOS, including the Amazon Fire HDX, Google Nexus devices, and Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets.
At this early of pmOS development, however, few of these devices have a full set of features. However, in offering multiple desktop environments, the pmOS project looks well-placed to fulfill its aim of creating a long-term sustainable mobile operating system based on Linux.
Apps That Install Linux on Android
If you’re desperate to have Linux in your pocket but don’t have any of the devices listed above, there are alternatives.
These enable you to run Linux (or give the appearance of running Linux) from the comfort of your Android device as an app. A rooted phone is necessary in most cases, but these are mostly offering emulation.
A tool that doesn’t require root, KBOX is described as “a project to create a miniature Linux distribution for non-rooted (i.e., unmodified) Android devices, providing a Linux-like console environment.”
As such, it features many command line utilities, but is unavailable in Google Play. Instead, you’ll have to visit the website to download and install the APK. Make sure you understand the pitfalls of installing apps from third party sites beyond Google Play before proceeding.
Download: KBOX (free)
Rather than a command line environment with some Linux tools, you may prefer something like Linux Deploy, from Google Play. Requiring both a terminal emulator and a VNC client to be installed—as well as a rooted phone—Linux Deploy enables you to choose from several different distros. These are installed in a disk image on your device storage.
Once installed, however, you’ll be able to access a Linux desktop environment on your phone or tablet.
Download: Linux Deploy (free)
Your Smartphone Deserves Linux
In short, Linux is available for many smartphones already, and we’ve seen several great Linux tablets too. But there’s a long way to go. Linux distros on mobile devices are rare but need your support.
If you have one of the devices mentioned or linked to above, please try out a compatible Linux mobile distro.
Spend a few days with it to see how it works out for you. Then let the project community concerned know how it went. Let them know what worked, and what didn’t.
If you can code, why not offer the benefit of your experience to one of the development projects? Better still, you could even start developing your own mobile version of Linux using the Halium project.
Have you tried a Linux mobile operating system? Found it too hard to install? Well, don’t worry too much, you can run Linux on any Android smartphone.