Some said it was pie in the sky but after two years of development and fashionably late the Ubuntu smartphone will go on sale next week to a lucky few running on the Aquaris E4.5 handset from Spanish manufacturer BQ.
Running Ubuntu Touch (or Ubuntu phone), the first units will be sold off in a series of ‘flash’ sales the website and precise timing of which has yet to be announced. The price for the Aquaris Ubuntu Edition will be €169.90 or whatever that converts into in pounds, currently around £127.
Shortly after that, online sales will be opened to all comers using a mixture of direct sales and partnerships with operators, 3 in Sweden, Giffgaff in the UK and Portugal Telecom. The handset will be unlocked to use on any network.
After mentioning that there are no immediate plans to ship this Ubuntu smartphone to US buyers, let’s deal with what’s on offer here. The Aquaris E4.5 is what in the Android world would be described as a just above entry-level spec, running a 1.3GHz MediaTek Quad Core Cortex A7 processor with 1GB RAM and 8GB of storage.
It’s black-only model deliberately accessible in terms of price and although an unknown beyond its home territory looks like a respectable platform for such an important launch. It’s got an eight megapixel rear camera, full HD video, supports dual SIMs and a MicroSD slot to expand the limited storage.
Canonical is very clear that this package is aimed at the committed and curious, mainly people who already run Ubuntu.
“We believe that there is hunger for something in the mobile space. Users are looking for something more engaging. At this stage, we are targeting early adopters who are hungry for a different experience,” said Canonical’s vice president of mobile, Cristian Parrino.
So is this another smartphone platform to take on Android and iOS? Not exactly.
Ubuntu Phone is designed from the ground up to be a bit different from a company stymied by the radical but now aborted Ubuntu Edge mobile computer the firm tried and failed to get funded during an Indiegogo campaign in the summer of 2013. Ubuntu Phone is a return to earth and attempt to plot a new and perhaps more pragmatic course that has been available for developers to flash onto compatible Nexus handsets and test since 2014.
The major innovation of Ubuntu Phone – and perhaps its major risk – a brave, ingenious HTML5-oriented GUI concept called ‘Scopes’. Instead of having lots of inscrutable apps users might not understand arranged in a grid, Ubuntu Phone has a series of categorised screens (news, video, music, etc) that show information resources. When the user clicks on these, these turn into apps or services.
It makes a lot of sense and on paper is conceptually more sophisticated than the “hackneyed” icon-driven world of the incumbents but requires developer buy-in, especially from the Linux fraternity.
“Ubuntu presents users with an entirely different way to engage with their devices - Scopes guide you to content you want - in the same way you think about it - to deliver a smooth, engaging experience,” said Cristian Parrino.
“For developers, Scopes are a much simpler and more valuable way to build mobile experiences than apps - significantly changing ecosystem dynamics.”
Scopes are built using a UI toolkit that the firm claims has “lower development and maintenance costs than traditional apps.”
“Developers will see that the barrier to entry on this platform is much lower,” said Parrino.
As to whether the nearly adopters want to buy in on the Spanish handset it’s being offered on, Canonical and its partner BQ are optimistic.
“We are not coming out with yet another Android or iOS clone,” Parrino told journalists. “We have learned a lot form China where unknown brands have achieved a lot. We have taken that approach on-board and Westernised it.”
New smartphone platforms don’t come along that often but here we are, welcoming in one running something from the makers of the leading Linux desktop distro. For the hardcore, that will be enough of an invitation on its own. Others will want to see what developers and early adopters before jumping in.
Buyers parties should watch the @ubuntu and @bqreaders Twitter accounts for news of the flash sales.