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Ubuntu phone

THE first Ubuntu smart phone goes on sale in Europe in the next few days, but early reports suggest that very few people outside the continent will get to see or buy one any time soon. This is a bit of a disappointment for dyed-in-the-wool Ubuntu users who have waited eagerly to see how well their operating system of choice runs on a mobile device.

And what a wait it’s been.

In 2013, there was a sense of excitement when Canonical head honcho Mark Shuttleworth took his concept of a high-end Ubuntu-powered smart phone to the crowd-funding site Indigogo. The effort, alas, fell short of the ambitious target to raise $32 million and the sleek Ubuntu Edge, as the phone was called, was never built.  Since then, Shuttleworth’s company Canonical has been pitching Ubuntu Touch  to hardware partners and managed to win over two of them, Meizu of China and BQ of Spain, neither of them exactly household names outside their home countries. Both missed their target to launch their Ubuntu-powered phones in 2014.

Now BQ is bringing its Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition to the market, featuring a 4.5-inch display (with a resolution of 540x960), a 5-megapixel front camera and an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera. The phone uses a 1.3-GHz quad-core MediaTek Corex A7 processor and comes with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage and will sell for €169.90 or about P8,500.

Despite the delay in its launch, the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition isn’t even a new phone built specifically for Ubuntu Touch. The company already sells the same exact model with Android 4.4 loaded.  Moreover, the first Ubuntu smart phone won’t be available in retail outlets but will be sold through a series of online “flash sales,” where it will be offered over a limited period. Details of these sales will be announced through Ubuntu’s Twitter, G+ and Facebook accounts and BQ’s Twitter account.

Canonical and BQ could be hoping to replicate the success of China’s Xiamoi, which sold more than half a million of its Redmi smart phones in India using sudden online sales.

Aside from this sales tactic, Canonical is banking on the Ubuntu interface to differentiate itself from Android and Apple iPhones.  Instead of home pages with apps, Ubuntu phones offer categorized home screens called “scopes” that aggregate similar content. (Swiping in from the left edge of the screen brings up all the apps available, a menu of icons that will be familiar to Ubuntu users who use the Unity interface on the desktop.)

“Scopes are a new UI paradigm, designed to deliver content and services directly to categorised home screens, giving users a rich, unfragmented experience,” Canonical says on the Ubuntu website.  “Ubuntu phones come with several categorized home screens — including music, video, news, and more—that define the device’s default experience. These aggregation scopes bring together content and services from multiple sources and deliver them as a unified experience. For example, the video scope or home screen will display multiple video sources like YouTube and Vimeo in addition to your own recorded videos, and similarly a music scope can display your music plus content from the likes of Soundcloud, Grooveshark and more.” All this sounds intriguing but the oddly named Aquaris E4.5 hardly seems like a particularly auspicious debut for the Ubuntu phone.  Flash sales might be attractive to a certain segment of the market, but I imagine many more consumers will want to actually handle a phone before buying it. I know I would.

As an Android user, I would also expect a variety of hardware from different manufacturers to choose from. I would not have this choice today with an Ubuntu phone.

Of course, iPhone users don’t get a lot of choice of models, either, but then they don’t really expect to get it.  Another obstacle is the expectation among phone buyers these days that there will be thousands of applications available to run on their devices. This is certainly not the case for Ubuntu phones—and developers might not be inclined to create apps for a new platform with such a small user base.

As much as it pains me to say it, Ubuntu may already be too late in the game, given the dominant positions held by Android and iOS, and the inability of Canonical to win over bigger names in the mobile phone business.

Two years ago, I might have entertained the idea of buying an Ubuntu-powered smart phone. But today, with two years of experience using Android, the inertia would be great against buying an untested phone that I can’t even hold in my hand. Chin Wong

Column archives and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com

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