Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu smartphone is a leap ahead

Nearly 30 000 people contributed to the crowdfunding drive to develop the Ubuntu Edge, a smartphone running the Ubuntu Unity OS. It showed people were hungry for something new. That phone is still in development phase, but until it comes to market, say hallo to the Ubuntu phone.

shuttleworth Mark Shuttleworth (singing at centre) believes that phones are not simply devices anymore: they are the gateway to other people. (Image: Graham Binns)

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Sulaiman Philip

Mark Shuttleworth’s Canonical released its first mobile phone handsets in Europe in early February. Designed by Bq, a Spanish company, it marks the first time a phone using the South African-developed operating system, Ubuntu, is being used to run a mobile phone in the consumer market.

The phone has faced multiple setbacks in coming to the market since it was announced in early 2014. Most of these delays had to do with Shuttleworth’s vision for it: he wanted a phone that offered the ease of use of mobiles but that could be integrated to be used as a PC as well.

Android and Apple have tried to give users the same experience and have failed to seamlessly integrate the user experience of the phone with a desktop. But because the Ubuntu phone runs using Unity OS, the same system used by its computers, it makes use across platforms easy and seamless.

The Ubuntu phone is, as tech writer Jack Wallen says, the little phone that could. It was the phone that everyone did not know they needed, he wrote in early 2015. He argued that its interface and the ease of its use was a vast improvement over anything available on Android or Apple.

“Just like they did with Unity, the designers and developers turned inward and asked the question, ‘How can we reinvent this wheel in such a way that makes the mobile platform easier and more powerful?'”

As mobile technology has evolved, the biggest and fastest-growing segment on both the Apple iOS and Android operating systems are apps. Six months before the launch of the first Macintosh, Steve Jobs was predicting the birth of apps. In the summer of 1983, 24 years before the first iPhone, he spoke about new ways of digitally distributing content. In his vision, apps would be very much like a digital record store where the information you wanted would be downloaded over phone lines.

When the Apple App Store debuted in July 2008 there were just 552 apps available for download. Facebook, Shazam and Yelp were among those first apps that are still available today. Now there are millions of options available for everything from games to first aid to cooking.

Ubuntu the operating system running Ubuntu phones, uses Linux, an open source system. Canonical has tweaked the Linux system on the phones to make it easier for developers to create apps for the system. The tweaks allow developers using Android or Apple to shift their apps over to Ubuntu phones with minimal friction.

“We make it easy for app developers to care about Ubuntu. If you care about something but it’s hard, you can’t do anything; if it’s easy, you can do something about it,” Shuttleworth told c/net at the World Mobile Congress in 2014. “We’ve refined it so that any app developer team can have one or two people who really care about Ubuntu, and we’ve done that by looking at the toolsets people use to develop for Android and iOS and made sure we’re well lined-up to make it easy to use those toolsets.”

In August 2013, he raised $12.8-million (R149-million) through crowdfunding website Indiegogo to fund development of the Ubuntu Edge, a mobile phone and a portable desktop computer powered by the Ubuntu Mobile operating system. While impressive, the amount fell far short of the $32-million target that was set.

For Shuttleworth, the Edge was an opportunity to showcase the Ubuntu operating system on a device that was, at least, as smart as the iPhone. There were 27 000 contributors, including Bloomberg news service, which contributed $80 000, who contributed between $20 and $80 000. In a statement announcing the return of all contributions after falling short of the target, Shuttleworth wrote: “Thousands of you clearly want to own an Ubuntu phone and believe in our vision of convergence and, rest assured, you won’t have much longer to wait.”

Mobile phones today are, in Shuttleworth’s words, slabs of glass that all broadly do the same thing. The Edge was a three-year leap forward into the future of phone technology. It was designed with a 128GB SSD (solid-state drive) and at least 4GB of RAM, specs closer to a PC. An adaptive interface allowed the Edge to be a smartphone in your hand and a desktop when docked with a monitor.

But not raising the full target was not a failure, explained Shuttleworth. “It certainly raised eyebrows in the phone industry in a good way. Folks feel there’s a hunger for something new and it sent a signal as to what that something new might look like.”