Interview with Plasma Mobile developer Bhushan Shah
What are my options if I want to run my phone with Free Software?
For our Upcycling Android campaign we interviewed Plasma Mobile
developer Bhushan Shah about running a privacy-respecting and
secure GNU/Linux phone ecosystem on your phone.
KDE is an international Free Software community founded in 1996, and
KDE e.V. is an associated organisation of the FSFE. In 2014, KDE
first released Plasma, a graphical workspace environment which
became one of its core projects. Plasma Mobile is a Plasma 5 variant
for Linux-based smartphones. Bhushan Shah is a developer in the
Plasma Mobile project since 2015. We chatted with Bhushan to learn
more about this promising project. In this interview Bhushan
explains why using Plasma Mobile benefits one's privacy, and how to
get started. Enjoy!
FSFE: Hello Bhushan 🙂 thank you for joining!
Bhushan Shah: Hello! Good morning! 🙂
FSFE: As a start we would like to learn a few
things about you, like how did you first become interested in Free
Software and how did you start working at Plasma Mobile?
Bhushan: Sure. My first exposure to Free Software
was a Linux course at University, which made me interested in Linux
and open source in general. As part of that I started writing
articles for Linux news sites (Muktware), and that introduced me to
the KDE community. Basically, as I grew closer to the KDE community
as a user I started using my development skills to contribute back,
and then I never looked back. I was working with the KDE community
as a contributor when they announced Plasma Mobile, and I was hired
to work on Plasma Mobile by Bluesystems GmbH. That was in 2015, and
after that I grew much closer to the Plasma Mobile project, both in
technical terms and as a "movement" to provide an open
alternative to Android/iOS 🙂
FSFE: What is your current role in Plasma Mobile?
Bhushan: Currently I am working as a developer and
maintainer of the Plasma Mobile project. I should note that being
the maintainer does not make me BDFL* 😉 and responsibility for each
of the components still stays with all contributors. 🙂
FSFE: Perfect, because we would like you to share
with us what is Plasma Mobile? How is it different to other mobile
operating systems? Pretend we hear about Free Software for the
Bhushan: Right. In purely technical terms, Plasma
Mobile is a collection of various software components, but I'd
like to think of it more as a ecosystem of mobile software which is
open by nature and has a community-first approach.
Other mobile operating systems like Android and iOS have
development done behind closed doors by large corporations and will
only provide new releases as a either huge code dump or will not
even provide a source code in some cases, while Plasma Mobile aims
to provide a complete transparent development process where each
change is developed together with the community, and is available
with licenses that allow anyone to use, inspect and develop onward.
Our goal is that every user, developer, designer,
translator can take part in the development and the community of
Plasma Mobile and can work on improving it. As for what
makes Plasma Mobile, again this is technical points, but Plasma
Mobile includes a shell or user interface, applications, and
distribution / base system for various mobile devices.
Bhushan Shah (second from left) in Akademy, the annual world summit of KDE.
FSFE: Sounds like a vast collaborative project. We
would also like to learn what would you say to someone who has
decided to opt for a Free Software operating system, and has to
choose between an Android-based custom-ROM or a full GNU/Linux
distribution, like Plasma Mobile. What are the main differences,
and what should a user have in mind to make the right choice?
Bhushan: Right, this is a question which will
yield 10 different answers if you ask 10 different people 😄
But ultimately it depends on what the user wants from their device.
There are some use cases, for example banking or mobile payment
applications, which unfortunately are not easily possible when you
use the full Linux based distribution, as the market for such
operating systems is still little bit of a niche and app developers
do not support these distributions. That said, there are solutions
like Waydroid which allow one to run such essential android
applications on the GNU/Linux system.
If you do not have such use cases where you need an Android device
in your daily life then a full Linux-based system is definitely a
better choice, compared to let's say LineageOS or a de-googled
device, due to software freedoms it provides. So the bottom line
is, each user will have a different use case and while we can try
our best to match user expectation, ultimately the user will have
to make the decision here.
I think the main difference that will impact users is the app
ecosystem available to them. While the Mobile Linux app ecosystem
is growing, unfortunately it is not anywhere close to what Android
and iOS have right now. We as a community and Free Software
enthusiasts will have to work on improving this aspect of the Free
Software mobile ecosystem. 🙂
FSFE: Thanks. What is the quickest way to start
using Plasma Mobile? If I am looking to buy a new device and I am
interested in Plasma Mobile, what are my options?
Bhushan: There are certain vendors like Pine64 and
Purism, who have "Linux first" devices like PinePhone,
PinePhone Pro, and Librem 5 which should support the Plasma Mobile
without much hassle. Pine64 devices ship with Plasma Mobile as the
default even, but if these are not an option for you for whatever
reason, then the postmarketOS community is also working on adding
support for off-the-shelf Android devices in the mainline Linux
kernel. You can find a list of supported devices
in this page.
FSFE: Great. And once we have Plasma Mobile, what
are your most beloved apps you would recommend us?
Bhushan: Most distributions come with some basic
set of applications like Dialer, SMS application, Clock, Setting
applications etc. We have a
list of applications on the Plasma Mobile website that you can
My personal favourite, however, if you ask, is KDE connect for interacting
and controlling other devices using Plasma Mobile devices 😉
Screenshots of Plasma Mobile
FSFE: Plasma Mobile states to be a privacy
respecting phone ecosystem. How does Plasma Mobile secure
Bhushan: Right. A lot of applications and software
in the current mobile ecosystem are built with one basic aim of
tracking users and collecting multiple GBs of data about users.
Almost all of this is sold as "Improving user
experience" or "features" so users have no idea that
their data is being harvested. Do you want to activate
your phone with voice? Do you want to share your live location with
your friend? Do you maybe want to unlock your device with a
fingerprint or eye tracking?
Most users will say yes to this and Android/iOS will mine this
data, use it for targeted advertisements and in the worst case will
share with state actors who want to spy on users. We at Plasma
Mobile have committed to building a ecosystem where user privacy is
respected, Apart from opt-in very basic telemetry kde.org does not
collect any of the user data, and we work on adding the same set of
user enhancements without hidden data collection or targeted
In addition to this, being open by nature means that users are free
to audit the application/software installed on their device for any
anti-privacy features or hidden trackers 🙂
FSFE: The contrast with the dominant mobile
ecosystems in matters of privacy is striking indeed. Going back to
other devices - GNU/Linux systems are famous for being able to run
on a variety of devices. Can I use Plasma mobile on other devices
except phones, or is that planned for the future?
Bhushan: Yes, you can use Plasma Mobile on the
tablet/desktop devices as well. In fact a lot of us developers
develop Plasma Mobile by running it initially on the desktop 🙂 Some
distributions offer Live Images that you can boot on your laptop to
test drive Plasma Mobile.
FSFE: Sounds fun! As a last question, we would
like to ask you what motivates you in your work for Plasma Mobile?
Bhushan: My motivation is two-fold. First is I
very much believe in the vision of Plasma Mobile, and I would like
to help the KDE community achieve that goal, and my second
motivation is technology. I am a developer at heart and Plasma
Mobile is supported by various technologies and developing on it is
FSFE: Thank you Bhushan, for the interview and
also for offering us a privacy-friendly alternative to the current
mobile world. I wish all the best to the Plasma Mobile project,
which contributes to software freedom.
Bhushan: Thank you very much!
* BDFL: Acronym for 'benevolent dictator for life' satirizes the
power of the developers of Free Software projects who have the
final say in a dispute.