Thoughts on Canonical's Ubuntu phone

What the Ubuntu phone could mean for open source

Posted 10 Feb 2015 by 

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Welcome, one and all, to my new column here on Opensource.com. When Jason Hibbets asked for a name for this barrage of words I planned to write, I plumped for "Six Degrees," in reference to my quite ridiculous last name. I hope you swing by here once a month to check the column out, and share your feedback and ideas.

For those of you who don't know me, I am an open source community management and leadership dork. I spent just under eight years as Ubuntu community manager at Canonical, leading a team of six and providing community management consultancy via my own practice. I then moved on to join XPRIZE last year. I wrote "Art of Community," "Dealing With Disrespect," and a few other books, founded the Community Leadership Summit, which takes place just before OSCON in Portland each year, co-founded a technology podcast called Bad Voltage, and record some music from time to time.

The crux of my work is in community management. I believe in the power of well-organized, collaborative communities to do incredible work and to further a mission or focus bigger than any individual person. Open source is the shining example of this, and we are seeing the principles of open source community spreading wider and wider afield. This column will speak to some of that, as well as, wider open source rumblings too. So, let's get started.


When thinking about a first topic, I was a bit reticent to do anything Ubuntu-related. The reason is simple: I don't want you folks to think of this column as a biased Ubuntu puff-piece driven by a guy who spent a reasonable chunk of his life in the Ubuntu fishbowl. I want you to see this column as independent, authentic, and considered.

So, what am I going to write about for my first article of the column? Well, Ubuntu.

Ubuntu

I think it would be remiss to ignore arguably the biggest pivot in Ubuntu's history, and one that has had a wider impact on open source, the focus on convergence.

For those of you living under a rock, Ubuntu once largely focused on the desktop and has now converged desktop, mobile, tablet, TV, toaster, and unicorn positioning system platforms, into a single codebase. The idea being the platform can rev quicker and move to different platforms easier, thus opening up new markets and opportunities.

This strategic adjustment resulted in some key new pieces: Unity, Mir, click packages, an Ubuntu SDK, and more. It also resulted in controversy—heapings and heapings of bickering from far and wide about Canonical's new focus, accusations of NIH, and conspiracy theories of Mark Shuttleworth's true motives (which were always fun to read).

Many of those tawny-colored storms have since died down, so the Canonical team and company could get on and build the damn thing. Soon, I'll have a chance to get my hands on the first Ubuntu phone.

So, is Ubuntu for phones likely to be any good?

Right now, it is difficult to tell. There is no doubt that the engineering team has pulled off an incredible feat to deliver what we can already see in the current images. They built a convergent mobile environment, app developer platform, display server, a range of apps, all the sundry pieces (settings, networking, bluetooth, etc), and performed the hardware enablement. Even the most vitriol-filled observer should tip their hat at the Ubuntu engineering team for their accomplishments with a relatively short set of resources and tight timelines.

The play for Ubuntu on mobile is really hinged around a few key pieces: scopes, simplicity, and security.

The simplicity and security piece is a no-brainer. The Ubuntu phone is a breeze to use, makes sensible use of the screen edges, and cleverly uses notifications to access key bits of your phone quickly and easily. Likewise, the security model built into the Ubuntu phone is excellent, and the Ubuntu security team deserves that hat to be tipped in their direction too.

The big question is scopes; a technology that provides a simple way for content creators to display and visualize their content in front of people, and all tied into the home screen on the phone. This content can be either a dedicated scope (e.g. Grooveshark), or an aggregated scope of multiple content sources (e.g. Music).

There are two demographics we need to consider in assessing whether scopes will succeed: users and content creators.

For the latter, scopes are awesome. If you have a service, platform, or chunks of content, scopes provide a really low-cost way to make your content visible to users. No longer is your content buried under an app icon; it's right up front on the home screen of the phone. It can be aggregated with other content too to make it even more visible.

Likewise, for service providers and handset makers, this makes sense too. Google has the market by the short and curlies because it owns the service layer. Without those services, people don't want competing handsets. Thus, the Ubuntu model is interesting—and different.

That is great for people who ship phones and ship content on phones, but what about the users?

Well, this is where only time will tell.

While scopes make sense on paper, it is yet to be decided whether they make sense in pockets. The content distribution game is a careful one: if you unseat the balance and bombard people with content, people will switch it off. If you don't provide enough visibility of that content, the content providers will walk away.

They key question is whether scopes naturally fit into people's lives or whether they become an annoying thing that gets in the way of apps.

People use their phones for radically different things. I use mine for email, social media, web browsing, podcasts, watching videos, and more. Others only make phone calls and read email. Others write entire books on them. It's difficult to tell how the scopes model will fill these diverse needs, primarily because the handoff between where a scope begins (e.g. content distribution) and where an app begins (e.g. content editing) seems a little unclear.

So, in a nutshell, scopes make logical sense for companies to differentiate their phones from the crowd and bring innovation without fragmentation. What isn't clear is whether users will actually like what they get on their shiny new Ubuntu phone. Only time will tell when these handsets hit the market, but I do believe it is all the play for.

Being different

Despite all the unhappy snowflakes that have flung their poo in the general direction of Canonical, and all the Phoronix headlines that have thrown fuel on the fire, I respect Canonical and the community for their willingness to be different and try something new.

Much as I admire the work of Mozilla and Jolla on their respective phone platforms, they are largely doing what we already have today, just in a slightly different way (and in the case of FirefoxOS, to target important new markets). Canonical, though, is doing something genuinely different: scopes are a new model, the application developer model is new, and the feel of Ubuntu on phones even feels new.

With it, they are stirring the pot in a heavily entrenched market and having the confidence to propose something new, something that fits into a bigger convergence story, and something that is entirely free and open source.

Is it a risky play? Sure it is. All of the eggs are being put into the convergence basket, but if they pull this off, it could open up a whole new exciting era, not just for Ubuntu, but for open source too.

Six
Degrees

This article is part of Jono Bacon's Six Degrees column where he will share his thoughts and perspectives on the culture, communities, and trends in open source.

18 Comments

Winael

Hi Jono,

Congrats for this new column.

I think, on the architecture side, that Ubuntu still win with this phone, but not with the phone it self but with Snappy that is basically the core of the phone and almost all the Ubuntu product (except the desktop for now). Seeing Snappy used for IoT or Robotics, or in the cloud is just an amazing revolution, borned with the work on the phone.

On the UX side, and specially the scope, I'm following the Chris Wayne's work on building a tools that allow people who have no aknowledgment in software development to build their own scopes, manipulating only json manifest and conf file (for now just in CLI but soon with an UI). For the first time in phone history, people will be able to easily set up their phone to have access to THEIR content they choosed

Now, I'm waiting to see how Ubuntu-make will be used by people, but it seems powerfull enough to allow people to learn to build some application for their phone in native QML.

I think the Ubuntuphone has the capacity to transform people from consumers to prosumers, like Ubuntu did on the desktop

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3arn0wl

Great to read the paragraph about software development already happening which will enable non-coders to build scopes! Canonical will really be onto something big if that can be done well.

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dragonbite

It will be interesting to see how scopes are adopted by the users, a rather fickle lot. Some of that may be related to how intuitive or easily the user sees how it works for them!

Great to see you putting some columns here. I look forward to reading other articles. Your experience should provide some insight not readily noticeable by people who haven't been that involved.

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Yudhvir

Just get it to the US market already. I want one with decent specs. This Android-iOS stuff is stifling and scary.

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Winael

@Yudhvir,

You'll have your own OEM, and the phone should come in june

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3arn0wl

:) Hi Jono - nice to find you again!

I like the idea of scopes. It's a really good notion to be able to collect data from different sources, and put it in a container. I understand that it's supposed to be simpler, and cheaper than building an app... What would be really cool though, is if Canonical could make it a really simple process, so that Jo/e Bloggs could curate the information they want and then customise it to suit their needs/style. Sharing scopes, I'm sure, is something that Canonical has thought about.

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Winael

Yes, they'll try to do it.

I participated in a discussion with Rick Spencer during the Insiders Event, Canonical's Engineering VP, and clearly he said that could be great if scope could be build based on manifest.

And few hours later, Chris Wayne wrote this blogpost http://chrismwayne.com/?p=277

Right now I'm trying to create my blog scope, and a scope for my LoCo that will curated in Feed Events, blogpost feeds, feeds from flicker, feeds from youtube... (all in rss format)

Hoping that one day we could easily accurate differents kind of feeds

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3arn0wl

:) Good luck with writing your scopes - I hope to be able to too.

And thanks for that link.

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Eva Quirinius

I love Ubuntu and use it on my laptops and VPSes, but I wonder which problem the Ubuntu Phone solves.

So, if you have the Aquaris E4.5 Android and Ubuntu Edition next to eachother on sale, when/why should you buy the Ubuntu Edition?

I can only find one reason: if you want Ubuntu on every device.
But that is a geek-only reason, and thus a <<1% market share.

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3arn0wl

Personally I'd choose Ubuntu over Android because

a) the Ubuntu OS updates independently of carriers or manufacturers, so there's no waiting
b) I don't like the idea of Google's mining my data
c) it's completely Open Source and
d) hopefully there won't be any ads

Plus there's the whole thing about the phone being used as a computer, coming in the nearish future. And no app grid, just a splendidly though through OS.

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tdroid

Is it actually free software though? Or even open source? I supsect Ubuntu is being misleading by saying it is.

To me, "completely open source" means I can see the source for all code running on the application processor: booloader, kernel, and userspace hardware interface code (RIL, graphics driver, camera driver, etc). Anything short of that certainly isn't "completely open source".

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third-party

I suspect it will be much like Android, they claim it is open-source but it is not. It is built in an open-source environment and you can download the development version source. But the finished product in the phone that contains third party, proprietary software and additional scripts is closed-source.

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Canonical

But BigCorp Canonical collects data also....
They stuck Amazon in Ubuntu, so I expect that and more will be chucked in the phone ...advertisments and malware expected.

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UbuntuAddicted

I feel that the idea of convergence is a grandiose idea. It takes true vision like that of Steve Jobs to do something no one thinks is possible and make it happen whether the consumer wants it or not. I fully support Mark and Canonical and only want them to succeed. When I was given a livecd of Breezy Badger back in 2005 is when I became a full open source advocate and linux user. Today I use it for everything I do personally and for my small business. I administer servers that of course run Ubuntu 14.04 and I also run an Xubuntu 14.04 desktop along with other variants of Ubuntu. I've converted probably 50+ users from Windows since that day and I continue to show OS X and Windows users why Linux (Specifically Ubuntu derivatives) why they should try it out.
I look forward to other 6 degrees articles.

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Bismark

The Bismark (German battleship) comes to mind, it is up against heavy competition and will get sunk.
I could be wrong, time will tell, but thats my thought.

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Blk Dragon

It will be very nice to see how this new fon actually works over the clusters we have now and with it being all open sourced I'm sure much more comprehensive and less confusing...

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Matt Davis

Great information! I wanted to let you know that we included this in our February edition of the best open source, Linux, and web hosting content -> https://www.futurehosting.com/blog/februarys-roundup-of-the-best-open-so...

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Michael472847

And how about users' right to privacy? If you have a roote Android phone and install the Xposed framework you'll be able to install a permission manager app called Xprivacy: look at what permissions arrogate the apps. It's scary! A simple lantern app tries to read phone's IMEI, memory card serial number, know the device's location... even theoretically confidable apps like Firefox want to know the USB controller serial number, the name of the wifi networks around or the SIM card serial number and telephony operator's name. Do those apps really need all that private info that uniquely identify a device and make it trackable? How does Ubuntu behaves regarding to this? Does it follow the traditional open source respect to the users' freedom (tracked freedom isn't freedom) or it's another spying tool?

Cheers.

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Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations.

Bacon is a prominent author and speaker on community management and best practice, and wrote the best-selling The Art of Community (O’