Open Source

Ubuntu Phone: The little phone that could

The Ubuntu Phone release is upon us, and Jack Wallen discusses how this device could succeed as easily as it could fail.

Ubuntu Phone

I predicted it would fail. Honestly, I didn't want it to — I was fairly sure the Ubuntu Phone would be just the mobile interface we really needed, but it just seemed Canonical and the Ubuntu Phone were both on a collision course with vaporware-dom. However, like that little train in that adorable children's story, the Ubuntu Phone seemed to keep moving forward. In a few weeks, thanks to bq, the Ubuntu Phone will finally be given a chance on the marketplace... at least in Europe.

Some time in February, people will be able to get their hands on a Ubuntu Phone. Let that sink in for a bit. The thing that everyone (including myself) doubted Canonical could (or should) do. But there it is — continued proof of what Linux can do. However, there's still that haunting question in my mind, the question of should.

Canonical has two major hurdles to overcome: Android and iOS. Android currently owns the global mobile platform market and iOS is always right on the heels of Google's darling. But here's the thing — what if the Ubuntu Phone manages to break out of the current mold and deliver something everyone wants and needs? What if this radical new interface design truly is a vast improvement over what we already have?

When they designed the Ubuntu Phone, Canonical took a serious chance. Just like they did with Unity, the designers and developers turned inward and asked the question, "How can we reinvent this wheel in such a way that makes the mobile platform easier and more powerful?" To answer that question, they turned to a Unity feature that has inspired other platforms to follow suit.

Scopes is a single point of entry for anything. With Scopes, you can locate and find anything on your local storage, cloud storage, online retail... well, just about anything. This universal search makes perfect sense to have on the mobile platform. Google Now has it (though not nearly as powerful as Scopes), so we already know people will use it.

Imagine an entire platform built around a universal search. That is what the Ubuntu Phone is.

But is such a search tool enough? Every time a new platform is launched (mobile, desktop, gaming, etc), one of the first questions asked is, "Does it have apps?" That makes sense. Imagine an Android or iOS device without apps — it'd be pretty useless, right? Ubuntu believes otherwise. Canonical is inclined to believe that does not make for the best mobile experience. What they do firmly believe in is information and delivering information to the user in a unified manner, regardless of where the information originates.

What about apps?

Here's the catch, Canonical — although information is crucial to everyday life — has to take into consideration the fact that a vast majority of mobile users spend an overwhelming amount of time using those devices as distractions (music, movies) or as a means to communicate with other mobile users (SMS, Facebook, Twitter, etc). The Ubuntu Phone may well have managed to deliver information in the single most perfect form ever imagined, but if people can't Snapchat, tweet, like, or comment — they won't bother.

Of course, upon release, there will be plenty of Scopes that serve the same function as many apps. For example, an Amazon Scope will allow you to easily shop right from your device home screen. Same thing with eBay. It was also recently announced that X.org apps can run on Ubuntu Touch (the version of Ubuntu that powers the Ubuntu Phone). That means the likes of LibreOffice could be available for the device. That's important... very important. What it means is that the device has the capability of launching with a full-blown office suite ready to install and serve. The endgame for this would be if all apps that run on Linux could run on the Ubuntu Phone.

"Could" is the the operative word here. There's no final decree that every Linux app will work — and my guess is, just because an X.org app can work on the Ubuntu Phone doesn't mean that it will. Even the demo of LibreOffice running on Ubuntu Touch (see below) was only proof of concept. Regardless, this is big. This means that the likes of The GIMP, Clementine, Audacity, and so much more could be made mobile.

I wouldn't hold my breath though. I can't imagine X.org apps will actually be ready to run on Ubuntu Touch any time soon. Even if they are, at best, it'll be a kludge. Will they ever run seamlessly? If Unity/Mir is to do what they're expected to do, yes — X.org apps will most certainly run on the Ubuntu Phone (and a tablet, if one ever comes to market).

The device

The other issue is that the Ubuntu Phone is being released on a mid-level (at best) device. Here are the specs:

  • 4.5-inch screen (qHD resolution @ 540×960)
  • 1.3 GHz Quad Core ARM Cortex A7 (MediaTek)
  • Mali 400 GPU @ 500 MHz (MediaTek)
  • 8 GB eMMC storage
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 2150 mAh battery
  • Dual micro-SIM

That's average on today's market. However, the specs will (I hope) drive the price down so that the Ubuntu Phone is accessible to more people on an already strangled market.

The conclusion

The Ubuntu Phone could easily find its niche. If the average consumer can get beyond the radical shift in interface, Scopes could challenge how we think about and use our mobile devices.

However, I'm still hesitant to call the upcoming release of the Ubuntu Phone a success. It is a win — and a big one at that. The very idea that an open-source company can rewrite the script on how most of us use our mobile devices and actually release a piece of tech based on that script is remarkable. But the big test for the Ubuntu Phone isn't the release — it's in adoption. No one expects the Ubuntu Phone to overtake either Android or iOS. But will this new platform find enough adoption to stay afloat in a sea flooded with Androids and iThings?

If anyone can do it, I have every faith that it will be Canonical.

What do you think? Will the release of the Ubuntu Phone wind up a success for Canonical? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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