The Reality of the Ubuntu Phone

The Ubuntu phone has created some buzz, and while it faces big challenges, this phone has some real advantages.
Posted February 23, 2015

Matt Hartley

By now, most of you have likely heard about the new Ubuntu phone selling out fairly quickly after its release. In a crowded mobile market, any new entries to the smart phone operating system space must find their niche fairly quickly. We've seen how failing to address this can lead to mediocre results with Windows Phones.

In this article, we'll examine the existing challenges the new mobile player faces and what they can do about it.

Ubuntu Phone is for anyone

One of the first things I want to address is that even if you detest Unity on the desktop and don't like Ubuntu, the Ubuntu Phone is still relevant. I know die-hard Ubuntu haters who are desperate to get away from Android. They want a Linux phone that is free of Android's bloat or the iPhone's walled garden. Arguably, I'd believe the Ubuntu Phone could address issues created by both Android and iOS.

One of the key differences I've seen between the Ubuntu Phone and the desktop is for the phone, Ubuntu Scopes make sense. On the desktop, the Unity Lens/Scope experience is often a love it or hate it endeavor. I like Ubuntu and think Unity is a good desktop. But I've never found much use for the Lenses using Scopes. However, for the Ubuntu Phone, having access to the in-context information provided by Ubuntu Scopes provides value. The nearby scope for example, provides you with local information in a single page context. It's both easy to read and easy to use.

Yet as great as Scopes are for the Ubuntu Phone, I fear they won't be enough to make apps obsolete. That may be a bit tricker than most people realize.

Scopes aren't apps

As things stand now the Ubuntu Phone Scopes are best suited for information display, music, and other similar data. I don't see Scopes completely replacing apps just yet. Think about it, can you imagine a scope trying to provide Waze functionality? While hardly impossible, it would be difficult and would take away from the implied simplicity of the Ubuntu Scopes concept.

In any current Ubuntu Phone demonstration video, you'll note that apps are a significant part of the phone's user experience. With music, camera, and a web browser, each app is an important part of what makes the Ubuntu Phone a usable smart phone. Now this isn't to say that the Scopes can't be part of a major shift in how we do things. But let's be honest, are Scopes merely the next incarnation of Android widgets? Perhaps they're positioned to evolve into something more? At this stage however, this remains to be seen.

Areas of concern

One of the first things that concerns me is the navigation that comes with the Ubuntu Phone. Despite being attractive to look at, it requires relearning how you interact with your phone. Unlocking it will feel familiar enough, however once you discover much of your menu access is from a disappearing dock launcher, I think there will be frustration.

One of these frustrations will occur when users accidentally launch their applications. Obviously this can happen now with any smart phone, yet I feel like the dock launcher has greater potential for crowding. On the plus side, I do like how Ubuntu has users navigating Scopes with a single finger to browse through the options. I think this is far easier than how we navigate content currently on today's smart phones. So a big thumbs up there for Scopes. I just can't get myself to approve of the launcher dock though.

Next up, especially for existing smart phone users, is ecosystem lock-in. This is not going to be easy to break people from. A few years ago when I moved from iOS to Android, I lost countless dollars spent on my apps from Apple. Since the switch, I have learned to use free apps whenever possible, but I still have a significant investment with the Google Play Store.

What happens to this if I decide to come to Ubuntu? Even if every single app is available for Ubuntu, my records of ownership are stuck with Google. So it would mean once again dumping that investment and starting over. That said, starting over isn't that bad if the new OS makes up for it with neat features.

And the killer feature is...

After studying the Ubuntu Phone carefully and watching it sell out quickly overseas, I have come to the following realizations.

1. People want something new. Seriously! Existing phones feel like they're stuck in a time warp and are in a dire need of a refresh in terms of how we use them.

2. Specs matter less than performance. So long as the phone performs smoothly under an app/scope load, the specs won't matter nearly as much as they do with the competition. If the apps can run smoother with less resources this will help to sell more phones.

3. Scopes are likely to be a hit as it means getting at your contextual information without needing to check apps or waiting for push alerts.

Even though Android has apps and customizations that can provide scope-like functionality, the fact is they've not done a very good job with it. So this leaves a big door of opportunity for Ubuntu to show us how Scopes can make using our phones more effective.

Is a new user experience enough to get people to pop out of their app store ecosystems? The short answer is yes, but they will be almost exclusively Android users. The iOS crowd won't be joining Android users with Ubuntu simply because they're even more heavily locked down and most of them prefer the way iOS does things.

Final thoughts

I would be thrilled for the Ubuntu Phone to see the level of success and sell out quickly as it did in the EU. Here in the States, we're a very different market than what you'd find in the EU and I fear there may be less enthusiasm to be found as a result.

To make this a success, Ubuntu must make sure of the following:

1. Any phone selected for Ubuntu needs to have outstanding battery life. Because it's a later entry to the market, the expectations will be high.

2. Find a way to break through the app marketplace ecosystem lock-in. This might be impossible, but if there is a way to transfer ownership from, say, a paid Android app to the Ubuntu version, it would instantly make a difference in terms of Ubuntu adoption.

3. Profile/apps installed backup to a cloud service. This is a must if they want success here in the states. Switching from an old Ubuntu Phone to a replacement needs to be seamless – apps, data, the works.

If all three points above are addressed, then I believe they'll do very well in the U.S. smart phone market.

Let's face it, getting Americans out of an existing smart phone comfort zone isn't going to be easy. Regardless, I hold onto strong hopes that Ubuntu can make a deal with one of the major U.S. carriers and give Android/iOS a real run for their money.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tags: Ubuntu, Ubuntu Phone, Mobile Enterprise Applications Platforms

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