It's been a long road, spanning more than two years of adversity, but Ubuntu finally has a smartphone to call home. It's called the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition and is built by Spanish company BQ. This little-known manufacturer of tablets and e-readers is adapting one of its Android handsets to run Ubuntu and selling it for €169.90 (just over $190) in a series of flash sales across Europe. It's an unusual way to release a phone: followers of the @ubuntu and @bqreaders Twitter accounts will be the first to be alerted any time the Aquaris E4.5 UE becomes available to buy.
The modest price is matched by this first Ubuntu phone's barebone spec sheet. The 4.5-inch display has only qHD resolution (540 x 960), the processor is a 1.3GHz quad-core MediaTek chip, there's no LTE option, and the onboard storage is limited to 8GB. To offset these restrictions, the Aquaris allows memory expansion via a microSD card and also has two micro-SIM slots for added flexibility. If there's one spec indulgence here, it's the 5-megapixel front-facing camera, which BQ highlights as a major feature on the Android variant of this phone.
Though obviously aimed at the budget-conscious phone buyer, the Ubuntu phone faces tough competition from cheaper alternatives like the excellent Moto E on Android and Microsoft's latest Lumia devices running Windows Phone. Canonical, the company in charge of Ubuntu, believes it has a unique proposition to offer with its concept of Scopes. It eschews the traditional app-based interaction model in favor of "a new UI paradigm, designed to deliver content and services directly to categorised home screens, giving users a rich, unfragmented experience." This sort of content aggregation — serving web videos from YouTube and Vimeo as well as your own recorded media on the same screen — has been tried previously and never really succeeded. Canonical is therefore embarking on a highly ambitious project, but that's to be expected from the company that once sought $32 million to build the Ubuntu Edge smartphone that never materialized.
"We're not coming out with yet another iOS or Android clone."
At the outset, The Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition will feature Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Time Out, Yelp, and Cut the Rope among its best-known partners, with Spotify, SoundCloud, and Grooveshark also being integrated via their web APIs. The Ubuntu phone "supports mainstream HTML5 beautifully," says Canonical, and the company's categorical that it's "not coming out with yet another iOS or Android clone." What you'll get is something altogether different, a fresh experience built around screen-edge interactions and tailored Scopes that aim at "reversing the hackneyed status quo." It's a bold set of promises, though it's likely to find a receptive audience in its first buyers, who will necessarily be Ubuntu fans already.
There will be no retail availability of the Aquaris. It will be on sale via sporadic flash sales over the coming weeks, recruiting early adopters and trying to build up into a viable mobile platform. The climb toward that goal looks as long and hazardous as Ubuntu's mobile struggles to this point, but today marks an important milestone along the way.