I had been using my Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G for almost three years when I decided to get a new phone. I would use this new phone for daily tasks and take the chance to get a new model for hacking in the future. My apexqtmo would still be my companion and would now be more available for real hacking.

And so it also happened that its power button got stuck. It was not the first time, but now it would happen every so often, and would require me to disassemble it. So I managed to remove the plastic button and leave it with a hole so I could press the button with a screwdriver or a paperclip. That was the excuse I needed to get it to running Debian only.

Though it's now always plugged on my laptop, I got the chance to hack on it on my scarce free time. As I managed to get a kernel I built myself running on it, I started fixing things like enabling devtmpfs. I didn't insist much on running systemd, though, and kept with System V. The Xorg issues were either on the server or the client, depending on which client I ran.

I decided to give a chance to running the Android userspace on a chroot, but gave up after some work to get some firmware loaded.

I managed to get the ALSA controls right after saving them inside a chroot on my CyanogenMod system. Then, restoring them on Debian allowed to play songs. Unfortunately, it seems I broke the audio jack when disassembling it. Otherwise, it would have been a great portable audio player. I even wrote a small program that would allow me to control mpd by swiping on the touchscreen.

Then, as Debian release approached, I decided to investigate the framebuffer issue closely. I ended finding out that it was really a bug in the driver, and after fixing it, the X server and client crashes were gone. It was beautiful to get some desktop environment running with the right colors, get a calculator started and really using the phone as a mobile device.

There are two lessons or findings here for me. The first one is that the current environments are really lacking. Even something like GPE can't work. The buttons are tiny, scrollbars are still the only way for scrolling, some of the time. No automatic virtual keyboards. So, there needs to be some investing in the existing environments, and maybe even the development of new environments for these kinds of devices. This was something I expected somehow, but it's still disappointing to know that we had so much of those developed in the past and now gone. I really miss Maemo. Running something like Qtopia would mean grabing a very old unmaintained software not available in Debian. There is still matchbox, but it's as subpar as the others I tested.

The second lesson is that building a userspace to run on old kernels will still hit the problem of broken drivers. In my particular case, unless I wrote code for using Ion instead of the framebuffer, I would have had that problem. Or it would require me to add code to xorg-xserver that is not appropriate. Or fix the kernel drivers of available kernel sourcecodes. But this does not scale much more than doing the right thing and adding upstream support for these devices.

So, I decided it was time I started working on upstream support for my device. I have it in progress and may send some upstream patches soon. I have USB and MMC/SDcard working fine. DRM is still a challenge, but thanks to Rob Clark, it's something I expect to get working soon, and after that, I would certainly celebrate. Maybe even consider starting the work on other devices a little sooner.

Trying to review my post on GNU on smartphones, here is where I would put some of the status of my device and some extra notes.

On Halium

I am really glad people started this project. This was one of the things I criticized: that though Ubuntu Phone and FirefoxOS built on Android userspace, they were not easily portable to many devices out there.

But as I am looking for a more pure GNU experience, let's call it that, Halium does not help much in that direction. But I'd like to see it flourish and allow people to use more OSes on more devices.

Unfortunately, it suffers from similar problems as the strategy I was trying to go with. If you have a device with a very old kernel, you won't be able to run some of the latest userspace, even with Android userspace help. So, lots of devices would be left unsupported, unless we start working on some upstream support.

On RYF Hardware

My device is one of the worst out there. It's a modem that has a peripherical CPU. Much has already been said about Qualcomm chips being some of the least freedom-friendly. Ironically, it's some with the best upstream support, as far as I found out while doing this upstreaming work. Guess we'll have to wait for opencores, openrisc and risc-v to catch up here.


Though I have been experimenting with Debian, the upstream work would sure benefit lots of other OSes out there, mainly GNU+Linux based ones, but also other non-GNU Linux based ones. Not so much for other kernels.

On other options

After the demise of Ubuntu Phone, I am glad to see UBports catching up. I hope the project is sustainable and produce more releases for more devices.


This needs documentation. Most of the procedures rely on booting a recovery system, which means we are already past the root requirement. We simply boot our own system, then. However, for some debugging strategies, getting root on the OEM system is useful. So, try to get root on your system, but beware of malware out there.


Most of these devices will have their bootloaders in there. They may be unlocked, allowing unsigned kernels to be booted. Replacing these bootloaders is still going to be a challenge for another future phase. Though adding a second bootloader there, one that is freedom respecting, and that allows more control on that booting step to the user is something possible once you have some good upstream support. One could either use kexec for that, or try to use the same device tree for U-Boot, and use the knowledge of the device drivers for Linux on writing drivers for U-Boot, GRUB or Libreboot.


If you have root on your OEM system, this is something that could be worked on. Otherwise, there is magic-device-tool, whose approach is one that could be used.


While I am working on adding Linux upstream support for my device, it would be wonderful to see more kernels supporting those gadgets. Hopefully, some of the device driver writing and reverse engineering could help with that, though I am not too much optimistic. But there is hope.

Basic kernel drivers

Adding the basic support, like USB and MMC, after clocks, gpios, regulators and what not, is the first step to a long road. But it would allow using the device as a board computer, under better control of the user. Hopefully, lots of eletronic garbage out there would have some use as control gadgets. Instead of buying a new board, just grab your old phone and put it to some nice use.

Sensors, input devices, LEDs

There are usually easy too. Some sensors may depend on your modem or some userspace code that is not that easily reverse engineered. But others would just require some device tree work, or some small input driver.


Here, things may get complicated. Even basic video output is something I have some trouble with. Thanks to some other people's work, I have hope at least for my device. And using the vendor's linux source code, some framebuffer should be possible, even some DRM driver. But OpenGL or other 3D acceleration support requires much more work than that, and, at this moment, it's not something I am counting on. I am thankful for the work lots of people have been doing on this area, nonetheless.


Be it Wifi or Bluetooth, things get ugly here. The vendor driver might be available. Rewriting it would take a long time. Even then, it would most likely require some non-free firmware loading. Using USB OTG here might be an option.


The work of the Replicant folks on that is what gives me some hope that it might be possible to get this working. Something I would leave to after I have a good interface experience in my hands.


Problem is similar to the Modem/GSM one, as some code lives in userspace, sometimes talking to the modem is a requirement to get GPS access, etc.


This is where I would like to see new projects, even if they work on current software to get them more friendly to these form factors. I consider doing some work there, though that's not really my area of expertise.

Next steps

For me, my next steps are getting what I have working upstream, keep working on DRM support, packaging GPE, then experimenting with some compositor code. In the middle of that, trying to get some other devices started.

But documenting some of my work is something I realized I need to do more often, and this post is some try on that.