A Closer Look At Canonical’s Ubuntu Phones

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Canonical has finally got skin in the mobile game, putting its first Ubuntu phone on sale in Europe last month.

It’s been showing off that mid-tier device, made by BQ, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, along with a more premium smartphone made by Meizu, which will be released later this year — targeting the Chinese market.

Check out the photo gallery below for close ups of the Ubuntu mobile OS interface, as seen on the mid-tier BQ. And, further down the post, for photos of the higher end Meizu handset.

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Canonical’s gesture-based UI is built around shuffling a series of content slices built atop HTML5, called Scopes, which foreground customizable cross-sections of data – saving users from having to dive into different apps to get certain types of info themselves.

The first view you see after you unlock the phone (with a side swipe) is a Scope card showing the date, today’s weather and any upcoming events in your calendar. Swiping across brings in additional themed Scopes, such as one called Nearby which serves up location specific content such as nearby restaurants, pulled from Time Out (one of the handful of third party app makers supporting the platform at launch).

Here users can also specify the sort of content they are in the mood for by selecting from a list of potted descriptions – e.g. ‘I’m bored’, or ‘I’m stressed’. Select ‘I’m stressed’ and the phone serves up nearby shopping locations, spas, and games and music that might help relax you. It’s a bit trite but you can see what Canonical is trying to do — i.e. generate utility with limited source material at its disposal.

The key point here is the nascent Ubuntu mobile platform doesn’t have that many apps – the company tells TechCrunch there’s about 1,000 so far — so it makes sense to build a UI that doesn’t flag up that lack. Rather the platform works to repurpose and stitch together the content the platform does have and can scrape in order to create the perception of a more fully featured offering. So there are also music and news focused Scopes, to dice up and serve related tidbits of digital content.

Canonical says its own developer community is also getting involved with porting apps over. For instance Evernote is on board, thanks to a community effort. Essentially developers gave up their time for free to build the app on Evernote’s behalf. Canonical says it asked its community for five people to work on the app and 100 people volunteered to answer the call.

Canonical’s technical architect Ondrej Kubik says it’s hoping to repeat this trick with Dropbox. But obviously this is never going to be about catching up with Android and iOS’ sheer quantity of apps: of circa one million+. So the Ubuntu DIY community effort will be about plugging the most noticeable mobile app gaps. While Canonical does not have the resources of Microsoft to pay developers to port apps (as Redmond has with Windows Phone), it does have the good will of its open source supporters — and people are willing to donate time and effort to helping its platform grow, however small scale that growth is.

Returning to the Ubuntu interface, there are plentiful options available to users to customize what they see appearing in Scopes. News, messaging, and app and social sources can be configured to appear or not by checking or unchecking individual items from a long list. This sort of granular customization lets users personalize content within the Scopes framework, albeit constrained by the limited app support for the OS at this point (some content, such as news, is also being pulled in from the web).

As well as having what is necessarily a different focal point to the app centric approach of Android and iOS, the Ubuntu platform incorporates a lot of gestures. The launcher sidebar, which offers quick access to your apps via a narrow icon stack, is pulled in with a short flick. Elsewhere a horizontal swipe can take you back to a prior content page, or cycle through Scopes. A swipe up from the bottom edge when you’re using an app brings up contextual options in toolbar form.

It’s not just single swipes either. The interface can involve more involved gestures such as holding down and rocking back and forth to choose and select from options that are revealed as you move. These more complex gestures are aimed at saving UI navigation time — so, for instance, you don’t have to keep going back to other screens or tapping and drilling down through various menus to toggle settings or access apps. But there’s clearly scope for confusion vs the clarity of the more established directional navigation of Android and iOS.

It may be tedious to have to tap through multiple sub-menus or keep going back to the homescreen to locate something, as on Android and iOS, but such a structure is trivially mind-mapped. Not so Ubuntu’s interface. Kubik concedes there is a “challenging” learning curve here.

As it stands, Ubuntu mobile’s gesture story comes across as confusing, and when the core aim of having a ‘buttonless’ interface is apparently to save people time, that seems contradictory. A more realistic narrative is this is a device aimed at Ubuntu’s core user-base who won’t be put off by a little layered complexity. And who want to extend their support for Ubuntu open source from desktop to mobile.

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The devices on show at MWC are not in fact entirely buttonless. They do both have home buttons (touch-keys) — to tap to shortcut back to the homescreen — although neither of those keys was working on the devices we saw (owing to a technical issue, according to Kubik).

The placement of the home keys potentially conflicts with the up-swipe gesture that the interface also uses, but Kubik notes the sensors in the touch-keys are sensitive enough to distinguish between button tap and up-swipe. Whether users will be so easily able to discern all the nuanced navigation of Canonical’s mobile platform remains to be seen.

It’s taken Ubuntu a long time to get a mobile effort into the market. And the result is undoubtedly different. However it’s not clear whether the Scopes approach is especially appealing, given how app-centric mainstream mobile usage remains. Slowing smartphone growth in mature markets is arguably a symptom of high levels of satisfaction with existing devices and platforms, rather than the opposite. If you want to point to genuine dissatisfaction in the smartphone space right now you’d talk about battery life, not interface fatigue.

An apparent appetite for interface difference in the mobile space has also been invoked by others before Canonical, from Microsoft to Palm to Blackberry, to justify their own mobile UI spin. None of whom have thrived by treading an alternative path. Add to that, Ubuntu’s gesture-heavy interface can feel more constraining than liberating — given it involves an axis of gestures each tied to specific functionality. So it’s actually a whole new set of buttons users need to learn, except these keys are also invisible. The result can feel unwelcoming, and even willfully difficult.

The ongoing momentum powering Android and iOS would suggest the vast majority of mobile users are not in fact bored with app-centric interfaces or with clearly signposted back buttons. So Canonical iterating its UI to simplify and condense navigation – in much the same way that Jolla has with the 2.0 upgrade to its Sailfish platform — could be one way for it to widen Ubuntu mobile’s appeal.

Another potential route for growth could be support from regions like China keen to dilute the dominance of U.S.-made or controlled mobile platforms — exacerbated by concerns about government intelligence agencies surveillance intrusions into U.S.-based commercial software platforms. Last month, for instance, the Russian government revealed plans to pay local app makers to migrate apps to open source alternatives to Android, such as Jolla’s Sailfish and the Samsung-led Tizen project. Ubuntu’s open source, European headquarted mobile efforts could be another contender there.