Skip to main content

The Ubuntu phones are an audacious attempt to take on Android

The Ubuntu phones are an audacious attempt to take on Android


Actual devices from Canonical finally take the stage at MWC 2015

Share this story

The mobile journey of Linux-based OS Ubuntu has felt like an eternity. Canonical, the company that leads development on the platform, first announced the smartphone OS back in 2013; after an unsuccessful dalliance with crowdfunding, Canonical said over a year ago that phones from BQ and Meizu would launch with the platform in 2014. That goal was missed, but the BQ device was made available a few weeks ago, and it's on show at Mobile World Congress alongside a Meizu counterpart.

Ubuntu is late to the smartphone party, and not in a way that could be described as fashionable. But Canonical remains bullish on the future of the platform. "We're taking on Android," says mobile VP Cristian Parrino with a confident grin.

Ubuntu is taking a different approach to Android

Android, of course, has a considerable head start, with over a billion devices shipped and over a million apps in the Google Play Store. But instead of attempting to build an app store and ecosystem from scratch, Ubuntu is taking a different approach to how software works on a phone. The primary OS interface is underpinned by what Canonical calls "scopes"; essentially, a series of categorized homescreens that developers can plug into.

So, for example, you could swipe from the Photos scope, which includes photos from an Instagram feed, to the Music scope, which lets you access content from SoundCloud and Grooveshark — it works a little like a directly customizable, more expansive Google Now, or the way the Pebble Time's timeline feature pulls in data. Parrino says the system is very easy to develop for, and in some cases services can support the OS in less than a day without needing to write a line of code.

The interface is entirely driven by gestures and turns out to be very intuitive, but Canonical has its work cut out. At this point, it is somewhat fair to say that people like apps and have gotten used to the way that functionality and services are siloed away in little icons on a screen. And, while Canonical's idea to remove the middle man of coding an entire app in order to provide the content is appealing in some ways, it seems to me that it'd work best in situations where information flows down a one-way street to the user. It's hard to imagine apps like Snapchat flourishing on this platform without making significant effort.

The devices Canonical is showing off at MWC are both based on existing Android hardware, and neither is intended to be a big seller just yet. The first, the Aquaris E4.5 UE from Spanish manufacturer BQ (below), is a mid- to low-end device that keeps up with the OS well enough, but doesn't impress in build quality. That's to be expected given its €169.90 (about $190) price point, which even then only applies if you can actually secure a device in a flash sale — there's no retail availability, and Parrino says the strategy is about stoking enthusiasm among developers more than getting phones in the hands of consumers.

bq ubuntu phone

The second Ubuntu phone (top) is a more appealing proposition. It comes by way of Meizu, a Chinese company that has been making high-spec phones at low prices for years, and is based on the current MX4. The phone has a 5.36-inch 1920 x 1152 display, a 20-megapixel camera, and an eight-core MediaTek 6595 processor, all wrapped up in a reasonably attractive design with ultra-thin bezels. The MX4 Ubuntu is set to hit Europe soon, with a release in China coming later. It's early days for the platform, but Parrino believes that, once ready, it will appeal to carriers, who will pay a service fee in return for a customized experience that remains within the scope framework.

Canonical is still pushing convergence

Canonical is still pushing the concept of convergence, too. At MWC, the company is showing how devices running an early tablet version of the OS can switch to desktop Ubuntu when a USB keyboard is plugged in. The long-term plan is for Ubuntu phones to act as a PC once connected to a larger display.

It's hard to bet on Canonical in 2015, considering how long the mobile Ubuntu project has dragged on and at how early a stage it remains. But, lofty goals of unseating Google's Android aside, the Ubuntu community is unlikely to mind. If you care about the slickest, most mainstream experience, then, well, you probably don't run Ubuntu on your PC, either. I found the Ubuntu phones at MWC to offer simple, fresh experiences that could be more than serviceable for those with reason to believe. In this age of smartphone duopoly, it'd be nice to think there's room for smaller platforms that make a statement.