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Inside The Ubuntu Phone

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Almost as soon as the first version launched in 2004, Ubuntu permanently changed the Linux distribution landscape. 2004 was a time when the desktop was still important, and Ubuntu presented the Linux desktop not as alien territory, only to be ventured through with the right skills, but as a verdant pasture of adventure and possibility. As its 2004 tagline proudly proclaimed, this was Linux for Human Beings, and it enabled millions of people to use Linux who may not otherwise have done so.

Under the aegis of its parent company Canonical, Ubuntu is still a huge success. It’s now the distribution that non-Linux users will most likely have heard about, or have even tried. It’s used when migrating offices and local councils to Linux, and it’s used in many servers and cloud instances. It’s also the basis for many other popular distributions, including Mint, gNewSense, Google’s own derivatives and the semi-official KDE, Xfce and Gnome versions. Its easy installation and no-nonsense approach to adding applications or upgrades has forced every other distribution to up their game, and it’s helped make the Linux desktop a viable alternative to OS X and Windows.

But Canonical is facing something of an existential crisis. It needs to capitalise on its success and mind-share and make more of its influence. This is happening in the cloud, with Ubuntu finding favour as the first choice behind many servers, but Canonical also recognises that it needs to diversify.

Which is where the phone comes in. First touted as a cutting-edge convergence device, and the focus of a hugely ambitious crowdfunding campaign, the first incarnation of the Ubuntu Phone is here. And we’ve got one.

Canonical employs around 600 people. This makes it tiny in comparison to other phone manufacturers. Samsung alone moved 1,000 of its employees to work on Tizen, and it could do this almost overnight. Canonical doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure of funding. And it’s not a phone manufacturer.

But there’s more to Ubuntu than a popular Linux distribution. It’s also the most visible facet to a company strategy trying to generate income from open source. The distribution was famously founded by the multi-millionaire space tourist South African Mark Shuttleworth, after he pooled the initial team from mailing lists he read while free of the internet on an icebreaker. And while there is an Ubuntu Foundation to ensure the longevity of the distribution itself, the distribution is at the heart of a business he also founded, Canonical.

Like Red Hat, Ubuntu is also used widely as a server operating system, and more recently in the cloud, with a reported 64% of OpenStack deployments – and it’s even popular on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. But Canonical makes very little money from all these people spinning up instances of the word’s favourite operating system. This is open source, after all, and there’s nothing forcing anyone to pay for anything, even when those instances are dialling back to Ubuntu’s servers for updates and upgrades.

Ubuntu is undoubtedly a huge and growing success. But it’s also true that Canonical has yet to tap into the revenue potential of its own operating system, and it’s struggling to make a profit. Last year’s financial report on its performance 2012–2013 showed a loss of $21,343,00, despite gross profit being up from $54 million to $61 million. And this is where the requirement for a new direction steps in, and why 2015 is going to be pivotal for its future and the future, health and investment in the Ubuntu operating system.

Newbuntu

Ubuntu is used everywhere, but money-making potential has remained elusive. To solve that problem, Canonical needs a piece of its own turf, one that it can invest in, capitalise on and hopefully make money from. And that’s exactly what it has spent the last two years creating – not as a single technology, but as a swathe of innovations plugged into the heart of its operating system, from the desktop to the cloud. It’s had to sacrifice its standing within the community to do this – moving away from Gnome and Wayland, for instance. But this has been part of its strategy for staying in control. Canonical is transforming the way Ubuntu is put together and used. And the first real, physical and tangible step towards making this a reality is the launch of the Ubuntu Phone.

The Ubuntu Phone is the most exciting development to come out of Canonical for years, and its relevance for both Ubuntu and Canonical is something called convergence. Originally, convergence meant plugging in your phone and continuing to work with a keyboard and screen. It now means use the same interface on multiple devices – hence the redevelopment of Unity and the Mir display server running in the background – and that’s a difficult trick to pull off. Microsoft failed spectacularly by trying to augment Windows 8 with touch-friendly characteristics, despite almost no one being interested in using a touchscreen with their Windows laptops or PCs.

Ubuntu phone hardware: Two different makes and models

BQ Aquaris E4.5

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  • CPU 4-core MT6582 1.3GHz
  • GPU Mali 400 500MHz
  • RAM 1GB
  • NETWORK 802.11 b/g/n, GSM/HSPA
  • STORAGE 8GB
  • SCREEN SIZE 4.5 inches
  • RESOLUTION 540×960 – 240ppi
  • CAMERA 8MP (rear) 5MP (front)
  • DIMENSIONS 137 x 67 x 9 mm
  • WEIGHT 123g
  • BATTERY LiPo 2150 mAh
  • CONNECTORS Dual micro-SIM, micro-USB, headphone jack, MicroSD (up to 32GB)
  • PRICE €169 (only available in Europe)

Meizu MX4

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  • CPU 8-core MT6595 1.7/2.2GHz
  • GPU PowerVR G6200 MP4
  • RAM 2GB
  • NETWORK 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, GSM/HSPA/LTE
  • STORAGE 16/32/64GB
  • SCREEN SIZE 5.36 inches
  • RESOLUTION 1152×1920 – 418 ppi
  • CAMERA 20.7 MP (front) 2MP (rear)
  • DIMENSIONS 144 x 75.2 x 8.9 mm
  • WEIGHT 147g
  • BATTERY 3100 mAh
  • CONNECTORS Micro-SIM, micro-USB, headphone hack
  • PRICE TBA

Inside the phone

2014 – the year of Ubuntu on your phone?

Launching a mobile phone with a new operating system in 2015 is crazy. People of Earth carry over a billion Android devices alone, and Android is fundamentally an open source operating system, negating the moral imperative for creating another. Forking Android has been shown to work too, at both ends of the scale, from Amazon to Cyanogenmod. And we won’t mention other open source alternatives like Jolla, Tizen or Firefox OS. But that doesn’t mean someone else shouldn’t try, and there’s something intrinsically brilliant about open source in that it lets projects succeed or fall judged by their own merits. For Canonical, that means a strong emphasis on open source, open platforms and fundamentally, choice.

The turning point for Canonical must surely have been the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign in 2013. It was ridiculously optimistic: Mark Shuttlworth was asking for $32 million to give Canonical the cash to build a cutting-edge smartphone running its own operating system. Of course, the campaign failed. But it was a spectacularly winning failure: $10,267,352 was pledged from more than 22,053 contributors, making it the largest crowdfunding campaign of the time. And whether this was a publicity stunt or a genuine attempt to fund a new phone platform, there’s no doubt it left Canonical with the very real desire to create a phone.

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Both Canonical’s CEO, Jane Silber, and its VP of Mobile, Cristian Parrino, gave an impassioned talk about the importance of the Ubuntu Phone at its launch in February 2014.

Two years later

Two years later, we find ourselves in London on a chilly morning in February. We’re sitting with approximately 40 other people in a hotel in London. This is an ‘Insiders Event’ where the long awaited Ubuntu Phone is going to be revealed in partnership with BQ, a major phone and tablet manufacturer from Spain.

That Canonical isn’t launching the phone after a campaign of tantalising leaks and a conclusive fireworks display at Mobile World Congress is a significant sign that Canonical knows it can’t compete with the likes of Samsung. Its Ubuntu Phone is going to need to attract a different kind of customer. This is likely the same reason why early batches of the phone we’re about to get our hands on are sold ‘flash sale’ style to try and generate as much interest as possible. BQ has said it was handling 12,000 orders per minute during those initial flash sales, and selling out within 10 minutes, but there are no specific numbers available on the final quantities that have been sold.

Most people at this event are vocal community members, or people who have helped Ubuntu in some way. They’re not always the people with the largest number of followers on Twitter, or YouTube. They’re people with a genuine enthusiasm for Ubuntu and Canonical, and this sincerity is what comes through from the beginning, when the announcement finally comes.

“There are no words to describe how excited I am, and the rest of our colleagues, the engineers, our CEO, people who do the design, Mark…” says Cristian Parrino, VP of mobile at Canonical, by way of a very emotive introduction. He goes on to talk about not bringing another app-centric mobile phone platform to the market, about giving users a richer, less fragmented experience, “but most of all, more personal.”

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Just like the panel on the Ubuntu Desktop, you can pin applications and switch between those that are running on the Ubuntu Phone.

The origins

For us, Ubuntu’s netbook remix is the starting point of what has become Ubuntu Touch and Ubuntu Phone. It was here that the first pixels of what would become Unity made an appearance – a launch bar down the left of the screen, and a frugal use of display real-estate. This was followed by a migration to full-screen applications and unified menus and finally, the idea behind scopes. The scopes idea is Canonical’s great hope for the Ubuntu Phone, because it’s what it hopes will differentiate its operating system from the competition, and it’s what we first played with when we finally got the phone in our hands.

Canonical hopes that scopes will differentiate their efforts from those of the competition, and perhaps, justify its commitment to both the Mir display server, already running on the Ubuntu Phone, and the Unity desktop interface. Scopes are tied closely to Unity and Canonical’s convergence strategy – using the same user interface and even sessions across multiple devices, which is why Canonical has gone it alone with so many of the APIs behind the desktop.

Scope for improvement

However, the first and biggest problem with scopes isn’t a technical one. It’s explaining what they do and why they’re potentially so powerful. This isn’t so much a problem on the desktop, where we’ve got used to scopes as a way of switching between different kinds of search result. However, it’s not always clear what advantage this offers over a sorted list of results – where images or music files appear separated from other documents that satisfy the search criteria, for example.

The answer is that the results are aggregated from various sources. For music, that might be your local music collection, an online service and perhaps a store. For news, that might be the top stories from a selection of websites. But getting this message across to users of a new smartphone is going to be a challenge.

Scopes on the Ubuntu Phone are the default view. They’re what Canonical wants you to use to get the most out of your device and they’re launched with the easiest screen gesture to pull off – swiping from the left edge of the display into the middle of the screen. This is initially confusing, because this same gesture also displays the launch panel, a vertical list of running and quick-launched apps that’s functionally identical to the desktop edition. Continue swiping and the currently running app is slid to the side, revealing whichever scope you were running previously. The first scope is labelled ‘Today’, and it’s the perfect example of the kind of data scopes pull into a single window.

The Today scope is Ubuntu’s equivalent to Google Now, only the information it pulls together to show on a single panel is totally under the user’s control, and far more comprehensive. And unlike Google Now, the developers have complete control over what information is aggregated and how, rather than relying on Google’s dark magic and an open invitation to raid your web browsing history. The Today scope shows the date, the local weather and upcoming events, as well as phone-specific events such as recent calls and messages, for instance. It also pulls in data from external services, listing Twitter trends, for example, or the latest new stories. Scopes are enabled and disabled by using stars in the top-right of each view.

Pressing the ‘Configure’ icon in the top-right alongside the star will enable you to choose elements you want enabled or disabled. For Today, that means a list of 15 different sources, from upcoming holidays to FitBit stats. It’s this kind of aggregation that’s key to how scopes work and why they could potentially be more effective than running a single app for a single task.

They’re not that dissimilar in function to the user interface of the hugely successful Pebble Time, which has just been successfully crowdfunded. With the Pebble Time, rather than making its users launch specific apps for specific functions, it takes nuggets of information from various app and data sources and presents these on a timeline that stretches from the past and into the future – just as you might expect with a watch.

Scopes can do the same thing, only they are most useful when there’s some context, such as pubs close to your location, major news stories or Wikipedia entries for sites close to where you’re staying, and they’re what makes the phone so interesting to use.

Some of our favourite scopes

Forget apps for now – these are what Canonical wants you to be impressed with.

NearBy

If there’s one example that best epitomises the idea behind scopes, it’s this. Taking your location as a starting point, this scope populates itself with music, photos and restaurants that have some link to where you’re currently standing. A drop-down menu also lets you choose a mood. Telling NearBy that you’re thirsty will return a list of bars (a fish bar was top of our list); if you say you’re stressed, you’ll get the location of your local spa, some relaxing music suggestions and a list of games. It will even pull in information from other related scopes, such as local Wikipedia entries.

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News

The News scope is another powerful example of scopes working well, giving you a lot of control over what kinds of stories (and their sources) are delivered to your device. An RSS feed is presumably the source for this data, as there’s only a paragraph and a single image to accompany the stories, but it’s enough to give you an overview of what’s happening and how those stories are being reported by the different media outlets displayed within the page. The only serious omission is the ability to add your own sources, but there are other RSS readers for that purpose.

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Music

The Music scope lists results from several mainstream music providers, including 7digital, SoundCloud and YouTube. Many of us listen to music from more than one source, and a scope for managing your access to those sources when you just want to listen to something makes better sense than opening separate YouTube or SoundCloud apps, but the back-end is a little too limited at the moment. The other problem is that the security lockdown on the device doesn’t let third-party apps play music in the background. Photo and video scopes offer similar facilities.

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Open Library

Many of the applications and scopes that can be downloaded from the Ubuntu Store are open source and their licence is an important part of the information you’re presented with before download. Open Library is one of the many open source applications that feels like an online store but it’s actually listing books that you can legally read for free. Most of these are classics, but the Open Library also lets you borrow digital books, as well as download those that are out of copyright, often as PDF, HTML and ePub.

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NearBy Articles

This is such a simple scope – it provides a single paragraph for Wikipedia entries that have a geographical location close to your current position. But it’s brilliant. You often find yourself updating the scope even when you’re driving through somewhere that looks interesting. If you need to know more, click on the link to open the web browser.

If you wanted to replace NearBy with this Articles scope, you can swipe up the scope configuration panel, hold down on the scope you want to move, and the management view will appear, allowing you to drag and move the position of any of the scopes.

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Shopping

This scope aggregates products in the same way that other scopes aggregate music or news. Default sources include eBay, Amazon and Etsy, and it could potentially be a great way of listing the same products from different sources so that you can compare prices and services. This is what it does when you use the search field. But it could be expanded to do so much more. The GPS could be used to list useful products when your phone knows you’re away – such as umbrellas in London – but it could also list competing prices or products when it knows you’re in a specific store or looking for a gift.

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Gesture control

How the Ubuntu phone is innovating in user interaction.

At the top of each scope panel, there’s a small breadcrumb trail of dots, which are used to represent which scope you’re currently looking at. Swipe left or right across this small section, or any blank section of background, and you swipe between scopes in the same way you might swipe between virtual desktops.

One of these scopes is called ‘apps’, and this is where users of other phones will feel at home. This scope behaves exactly like the app launcher for Android and iOS, and includes access to the Ubuntu Store and some integral functions like messaging, the camera and phone. The app icons can’t be manually rearranged, but they can be limited by category and pinned as a shortcut to your launch bar, just as you might on the desktop.

Left, right, up, down

One of Canonical’s other innovations is the use of every screen edge to trigger a gesture. As we’ve seen, dragging in from the left edge will first show the launch panel before swiping away the currently running application to reveal the scopes interface. Swiping from the right edge is the equivalent of launching the task switcher. Every application you’ve got running is concertinaed across the screen, enabling you to select them or flick to close them. A quick swipe is a shortcut to the previous application you were running. One feature unique to the Ubuntu Phone is that if you continue to hold one of these gestures and reverse your motion, the gesture is cancelled. For task switching, that means you can see what’s running and slide back to your original app without any interruption. The same principle is used for the notifications and quick settings panel, which is pulled down from the top border.

The panel you see will depend on where your finger is located horizontally across the top of the screen when you initiate the drag. On the far left, you’ll get the notifications list, while on the far right you’ll be able to configure the date and time. Between these points, there are panels for rotation, files, location services, Bluetooth, networking, sound and battery life. But if you hold your finger down and move to the left and right, you can switch between these modes dynamically and even close the panel without performing a single function.

The final edge – sliding up from the bottom of the phone – is used to open a contextual menu. The contents of this menu change depending on what application you’re running. From any scope, for example, you can use this menu to enable, disable and install other scopes, while the Call function uses the menu to list recent calls.

Get developing!

Getting developers to write new applications for a new platform is fundamental to its success. As Cristian Parrino put it when introducing the phone, how to attract developers “is the quintessential question.” And considering Google has only just started to get serious with its own development environment – Android Studio 1.0 was only released in December 2014 – Canonical has already made great progress by providing a fully fledged development environment. The Ubuntu SDK is easily installed from any Ubuntu desktop and it includes the development libraries, an emulator for testing code without any hardware, and a graphical development environment. You can also perform all kinds of remote tasks on your real Ubuntu Phone, such as connecting securely via an SSH session.

The application at the heart of these development tools is the venerable Qt Creator, with a few modifications to act as a portal for Ubuntu Touch development. The reason for this choice is QML, the scripting framework that takes the best bits of JavaScript (ubiquity and speed) and binds them to the expansive Qt user-interface library. This should enable almost anyone to build fully functional applications without too much difficulty. Another option is to use HTML 5 to develop your applications. Many of those that are bundled with the phone, and the desktop, do exactly this, and it means you can create truly cross-platform solutions from the same codebase.

Applications

Our favourite apps for the Ubuntu Phone OS.

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Camera: We take more photos than we make phone calls with our phones, so this app is important.

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Cut the Rope: There are many games but not so many tier-1 titles. This will change as more developers get on board.

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Dekko: An ace email client built to use all of the Ubuntu Touch UI elements.

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Terminal: This wouldn’t be Linux is we couldn’t access the terminal, and Canonical’s own application is one of the best .

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File manager: The operating system isn’t hidden from the users, but everything is strictly sandboxed. You can still modify your own files freely.

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OSMTouch: There are a few options for navigation, but this is the best way of accessing OpenStreetMap.

Convergence

The future of Ubuntu – and some would say the future of computing.

Convergence is the future of computing. So we’ve reshaped Ubuntu and combined the mobility of a smartphone and the power of a desktop on a single device.”

These were the words chosen by Mark Shuttleworth to start the promotional video that accompanied the launch of the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign back in 2013. And despite convergence being a difficult word to market, lots of potential users got excited by the idea of connecting a keyboard and screen to their phones to work more productively, just as you would on a desktop PC or laptop. The Ubuntu Phone doesn’t have these features, but convergence was still an important part of the launch presentation. But the emphasis was different. Mark, for example, mentioned convergence as the unification of x86 and ARM – the combination of laptops with mobile phones. But this isn’t likely to be from the same devices, and is more likely to be a feature that enables you to continue using the same application or workspace on more than one device.

Ubuntu has been reshaped too, as Mark originally promised. Scopes are an integral part of desktop Unity, even if they’re not as developed or as diverse as those that appear on the phone. And while the single-device features touted for the Ubuntu Edge aren’t in Ubuntu Touch today, they may not be far away. Ubuntu Desktop Engineering Manager, Will Cooke, has prepared a demo running on both Intel and ARM tablets running Ubuntu Touch, where applications pop-out of full screen and into a windowed mode when you connect a wireless mouse, and you can run desktop applications like LibreOffice and finally connect to a real screen, just as Mark Shuttleworth said you’d be able to do. The Unity, Mir and Xmir code needed to perform these tricks isn’t quite ready yet, but it looks like it’s not going to be far off, which won’t affect the modest BQ Ubuntu Phone, but it will open new possibilities for convergence on faster tablets and phones, as well as the Ubuntu Desktop itself.

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Core applications include the web browser, the gallery, a note taking tool and the media player.

A future full of choice

Ubuntu Phone, Ubuntu Touch and the Unity desktop are all part of Canonical’s strategy to put Ubuntu into a stronger position. If this succeeds, it will mean the future of Ubuntu is assured, even if the desktop becomes less relevant through more convergence with other devices.

But most importantly, it offers choice. As Jane Silber said when speaking at the launch of the phone, “We’re not at the end of what personal computing looks like.” In many ways, we think we’re still at the beginning. iPhone and Android are winning the current round, but we all know how quickly things can change, and we’re happier in a future where companies like Canonical try new things, than a future where they accept the status quo and things stay the same. This is what’s so good about the emergence and the final release of the Ubuntu Phone. It takes what started as an easy alternative desktop operating system and pushes it into our pockets – and that’s something to get excited about.

Snappy Core and the cloud

One of the best things to come out of Ubuntu Touch is Snappy Ubuntu Core (see issue 12 for our FAQ). Snappy Core is a minimal version of Ubuntu along with a cloud-focused package manager that makes it easy for sysadmins to create new services and spin them out across lots of instances or servers. Like Docker, each application is isolated, self-contained, sandboxed and secure – a development that only came about because Canonical needed a self-contained, sandboxed and secure solution for installing applications on Ubuntu Touch.

According to the OpenStack Foundation global survey, Ubuntu is the most popular host and guest operating system, with more than half of all OpenStack instances running Ubuntu, an an even larger proportion for public clouds. If Snappy Ubuntu Core can help Canonical turn some of that popularity into profit, Ubuntu will be in an even stronger position, as will the many users who cut their teeth with Ubuntu as a first distribution and want to find work within the industry.