Ubuntu Phone: Not a moment too soon

Newly announced Ubuntu Phone operating system looks great -- but the cutthroat mobile device market demands more

Announced on Jan. 2 in London, Ubuntu Phone offers a fresh alternative for phone vendors seeking a compelling user experience for customers. It also presents a new choice for manufacturers that want to control their phone operating environment -- and, unfortunately, for patent trolls and other anticompetitive riffraff wanting to tax other people's effort.

While Ubuntu Phone may seem late to market, that in itself is not a problem: Over the long haul, there'll be plenty of market opportunity. I was fortunate to be able to discuss the news with Richard Collins of Canonical, who is the product manager for Ubuntu Mobile; the video interview can be found at the end of this post.

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Ubuntu in your pocket

Ubuntu Phone is a new edition of the Ubuntu operating system derived from Debian GNU/Linux and targeted at smartphones and tablets. It's a logical outgrowth of many smaller announcements made over the last two years concerning the Unity desktop, touchscreen compatibility, Ubuntu for Android, and more. Coverage of the announcement includes more details -- especially regarding the gesture interface -- that I won't repeat here. Suffice to say that the prototype is gorgeous.

To open source developer eyes, this announcement includes several points of differentiation from Android. First, the platform uses native Linux applications rather than requiring a virtual machine -- no Java needed. This means that most Linux applications are a GUI redesign away from working with Ubuntu Phone. For native applications, Canonical has chosen to use Qt, the GUI toolkit from KDE, which Nokia embraced before its current relationship with Microsoft. Specifically, Ubuntu Phone uses QML to enable rapid development.

Second, HTML5 Web applications are fully supported, too. That means applications developed for other platforms -- the Chrome browser and ecosystem, for example, or for Apple devices independent of the App Store -- will work on Ubuntu Phone. Leveraging the growing market of HTML5 apps rather than exclusively ploughing a new furrow for native apps is a smart move.

Third, the platform is a real instance of Ubuntu and includes the full Ubuntu desktop experience. Thus, devices with a suitable video output can seamlessly morph into a full desktop computer in a way that is likely to be much more satisfying and complete than the kludgy mess Windows 8 offers.

Part of a larger community

Fourth and perhaps most important for open source developers, Ubuntu Phone is another part of the Ubuntu ecosystem. Many developers criticize Android for having no "upstream" -- no developer repository into which one can aspire to contribute bug fixes and enhancements. Indeed, a few assert this lack of collaborative development somehow invalidates Android's open source credentials.

But Ubuntu Phone is a variant of Ubuntu, alongside the Desktop and Server versions. That means it will be possible to engage directly with the platform: file bug reports, develop fixes, and contribute features. Canonical says Ubuntu is "a single OS for phone, PC, and TV" and has pledged Ubuntu Phone will be the most open mobile platform available. If this turns out to be real, it could be a path toward success. When technologies can be freely tried and adopted by developers, the result can be tremendous, providing the sort of developer marketing leverage that otherwise requires the immense budgets of giants like Microsoft.

Of course, there are skeptics. Canonical has been on the receiving end of inexplicable hostility from some sections of the "free software" community in the past, and Ubuntu Phone offers those critics another opportunity to attack. Canonical's tendency to experiment internally with new ideas before discussing them in public is frowned upon in some open communities. Also, Canonical has been known to toy with approaches that seem to lack respect for digital liberty. The recent criticism of Canonical's integration of Amazon search -- condemned as "spyware" by Richard Stallman -- is the latest in a line of controversy involving an alleged fast-and-loose approach to user freedom.

But the most common comment from skeptics is "show me the code." While various features have made their way into Ubuntu releases, today there's no public Ubuntu Phone code, source or binary. While Collins commented that the most likely date for product availability is September, another well-placed source explained that "the source code will be available in the next few weeks and we're hoping that phones will ship with Ubuntu at the end of this year, early next."  That sounds realistic to me; I also expect a proof-of-life in the form of a demo for Nexus 4 phones and Nexus 7 tablets soon, along with early code around the time of Ubuntu 13.04. A full product release depends on a roll-of-the-dice this week in Vegas, though.

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