Ubuntu 'superphone' needs a superstrategy

In an interview, community manager Jono Bacon reveals strength -- and risk -- of Canonical's bold challenge to Google and Apple

No doubt you've heard about Ubuntu Touch, the open source mobile OS for touchscreens currently in development by Ubuntu's owner Canonical. Ubuntu Touch is a variant of the Linux distro powering "superphones that are also full PC." I had the opportunity to discuss the Ubuntu phone project with Jono Bacon, a community manager employed by Canonical. You can watch the full discussion with Jono on FLOSS Weekly 252.

What we've heard about Ubuntu Phone so far is mostly positive. Almost universally, people say it looks gorgeous -- a phrase you've often heard associated with Apple products but less so with Linux products. It uses screen real estate innovatively and well. There's no waste due to universally required buttons or icons, since the various edges of the screen stand in as universal start points to summon menus and start searches.

In terms of development, progress is still in an early stage. Bacon said the internal team at Canonical has reached the "dog-fooding stage," running Ubuntu Phone on their own devices in order to become familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. That's a step beyond the developer preview released at the end of February, but it's a long way from being even as finished as Firefox OS, which is available on an actual device via Geeksphone (when they have stock; demand is high). While Canonical wants to raise Ubuntu Phone to a comparable shipping quality by the fall this year, the shipping date remains elusive.

It's cool and real. But is it Linux? Bacon told me it is. It's using the Linux kernel from Android, but otherwise there's plenty of code in common with the rest of Ubuntu. It has shared user interface concepts in the Unity desktop, and applications running on the phone are real Linux applications. It's even possible to run development tools on the phone if needed.

In addition to native applications, it offers the QML declarative language from the Qt framework, and it supports HTML5 apps complete with extensions to allow access to native resources like notifications and the system tray. As a consequence, it should be able to draw on a variety of existing developer communities to populate the device with apps and content.

In particular, the growing strength of open source mobile development is comfortably within Canonical's reach. For handling app packages, Canonical is considering a new package manager in place of apt-get, discovering like others before that all the existing Linux package managers have serious flaws in a networked, multi-user age of end-user installs. They could perhaps collaborate with other systems like Jolla to devise a multiplatform package format, but for now they are plotting their own path.

One surprising omission is a strategy for actually building a market for apps and content. When I asked Bacon about plans for an app store for Ubuntu Phone (or even for the larger Ubuntu Touch project), he told me Canonical considers the lack of an app store to be a strength. Users can simply sync all their apps, music, and photos with Canonical's proprietary Ubuntu One service, rather than needing to go to a store. That leaves important questions unaddressed. How do users of the device find new apps or content? How do they browse in general subject or genre areas? More important, what motivation is there for developers to create apps for Ubuntu Phone if there's no way for users to find them and buy them?

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