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Things You Should Know About Ubuntu Phone

Canonical is all set to break new grounds with its Ubuntu Phone, which the company was developing in utter secrecy for couple of months. The announcement got a mixed response. It excited the hard-core Ubuntu users who look forward to the idea of running Ubuntu on their phones; it excited a typical user due to the refreshing and well polished inter face.

There is a lot of curiosity about this phone and very less information available. I raised my curiosity and Ubuntu’s rock-star community manager Jono Bacon responded.

Can I run legacy Ubuntu apps?
When I heard the news the excitement I saw around was that now people will be able to run their favorite Ubuntu apps on smartphones. The impression they, and I,  had was that it’s just the same Ubuntu running on your smartphone.

Who won’t be excited at the idea of running GIMP or LibreOffice on a smartphone? Bacon said, “It won’t run the default Ubuntu apps; the screen size and format don’t match most apps. Also, we will want to have a more constrained developer platform to ensure the apps run quickly on lower powered phones. This is one of the reasons we are focusing on an SDK.”

So, in short no you won’t be able to run GIMP or LibreOffice on Ubuntu phone as you can’t run them now on Android. These apps will have to be ported to Ubuntu Phone platform. The availability of these apps on Ubuntu heavily depends on whether or not the developer is interested in this platform. Some apps like GIMP in their current form don’t make any sense on a smartphone either way – you don’t have enough screen space to do any meaningful work. To make it easier for such developers Canonical, as Bacon said, is already working on SDK to assist developers in creating apps for their platform.

Update: Michael Hall says:

For clarification, desktop apps might run (technically I don’t think there’s anything that would prevent it), but only Qt/QML and HTML5 apps will be supported (meaning we’ll make sure they run) when the phone is acting like a phone.

When the phone is acting like a desktop (because it has been docked, like Ubuntu for Android) then it should run any desktop apps that have been ported for that arch (assuming ARM for most phones).

The reason why Qt/QML and HTML5 apps will be supported on the phone (when acting like a phone) and not things like Gimp and Libreoffice is because those supported toolkits will make the apps accessible on the screen size and input methods available on a phone. If somebody wants to make a QML front-end to Gimp or LibreOffice, then it would be something you can run on the phone.

App store? 1 billion apps?
While Canonical is working on engaging developers from the very beginning, they are not much focusing on an App Store on the lines of Google Play. When asked by Engaged whether “you have a full app store ready for the launch of your smartphone? Richard Collins said, “In terms of our first go-to-market product strategy, the intention is not to have an application store full of ready-made applications that are there to download. We have a very definite approach in terms of addressing an important part of the market where users are primarily interested in being able to use a core set of applications.”

He further added, “At launch, we’ll have the capability for a mobile app store, but at this stage we don’t believe it is essential for the entry-level smartphone market we’re targeting. However, we won’t just be saying “there’s your basic applications, that’s all you’re going to need.” Our strategy includes giving carriers and manufacturers ways of delivering services in conjunction with us — we plan to give them more influence.”

Community involvement for core apps?
Canonical is seeking community support to build core apps, one might thing don’t they have enough man power to create core apps for their platform? Bacon says, “We have the power to write the apps, but we want to ensure the community is involved in the process. We have already written some of the core apps, and this outreach effort is designed to help our community get up and running creating a cool set of apps that will ship on the phone. We are just trying to clear the path to make it as simple as possible for the community to get involved and be productive.”

That sound perfect as a drive to engage the community from the very beginning. But isn’t it odd to seek community support when very less information is available for the platform and there is no source code for the community to see? Impression that someone would get would be “while they don’t give source to user, they want free labor to create ‘core’ apps for their product?”

Bacon disagrees, “Not really. While the source is not out yet, it will be: it is not out yet because we are finalizing it (e.g. sanitization, licensing etc). We didn’t want to block on the phone source to work with out community on the apps, so we kicked it off early. Also, you don’t need to the phone source to write a phone app – we have already published a developer preview of the SDK at developer.ubuntu.com.”

Who will be in control, users or OEM?
Since Canonical is planning to bring Ubuntu phones to the market through licenses to OEMs, the question arises who will be in-charge; who will have the root – users or OEMs. As Richard Collins told Engadget, OEMs and carriers will have more influence on the platform.

What does it mean?

Fragmentation?
Does it mean Ubuntu users will face the same issues some Android users are facing due to OEMs/carriers delaying updates or controlling the platform? OEMs and carriers were the reason behind the ‘so-called’ Android fragmentation. Google is now working hard to reduce the fragmentation. The company is now pushing hardware through partners which don’t come with bloatware and users get the pure Android experience. Putting OEMs in-charge may create similar fragmentation for Ubuntu. OEMs may not push the updates as their low-end devices may not support the latest and greatest Ubuntu which will be coming out every six months. So, there may be Ubuntu Phones running 14.04 whereas other will be running 14.10 or 16.04.

Most Ubuntu users think that they can just fire up the terminal and run apt-get dist-upgrade and get the latest Ubuntu – overwriting OEM’s default configuration. Whether you will have a terminal or not will depend on the OEM. As Bacon says, “A Terminal is simply not of interest to most consumers, and thus the OEMs will decide how it matches their target audience. We do though want to ensure a terminal is available if desired for download, hence it being part of the core apps project.”

I was unclear about it so I clearly asked, “can you simply run apt-get update and install the latest version? Or will it be totally controlled by OEMs?” Bacon’s response left nothing to imagination, “Likely to be controlled by OEMs and updates are likely to be service pack type updates as opposed to package updates as they go over the air and air costs money. Again, up to the OEMs how they deliver these.”

Sooner or later Canonical will face the problem of fragmentation as they put OEM in-charge. Even Microsoft’s own Windows Phone platform is heavily fragmented – which is even worse than Android, which is recovering fast. Canonical can learn some lesson from Google and fix the problem before it surfaces. That said, Canonical doesn’t have much choice. They don’t have any retail presense and OEM is the only route to reach out to the wider market. One may assume that as Canonical becomes more powerful in mobile space they will be in better position to take control of Ubuntu phone experience into their own hands.

Ubuntu phone is not Ubuntu desktop
The conclusion I draw here, which is equally important for any Ubuntu user, is that even if the phone will share the same code base it will be a different beast in its own rights. It’s a totally different platform. Bacon agrees, “The Ubuntu Phone is quite different from the desktop, but shares Unity (although with a custom UI for the screen size) and many of the foundation bits of the desktop.”

Will we see Ubuntu phones in US/Europe?
Unlike the declining desktop market, phone is the ‘emerging’ market. It may have saturated in the developed countries with Android dominating it, there may still be scope in the emerging markets. While Android is getting stronger in markets like Brazil, Mexico, China and India, it does leave a lot of room for Canonical to get some market share. So we may not see Ubuntu phones on AT&T or Verizon or in Europe but they may grain market in emerging econonies and those markets are huge. Only way to use Ubuntu in developed markets would be through manual rooting and installing on select devices. An important question that arises is will those emerging markets be enough to drive developers to create apps for this platform?

It’s too early to say anything unless there are Ubuntu phones that you can buy and use. The good news is Ubuntu has eventually entered the market and instead of releasing an ISO for anyone to install, they have a concrete business plan.

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Canonical has made Ubuntu a success on a platform dominated by Microsoft. They are an innovative company which is continuously innovating concepts like HUD and Ubuntu for Android. This innovative spirit may make Canonical a powerful player in a market dominated by Apple and Google.

Slideshow Image:
Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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