Thoughts on Canonical's Ubuntu phone

What the Ubuntu phone could mean for open source

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Welcome, one and all, to my new column here on 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.


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.


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.

About the author

Jono Bacon - 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,...