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:
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.
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.