Ubuntu on mobile: How Shuttleworth & team are forging ahead

I sat down with Canonical engineers to learn what makes Ubuntu a compelling platform.

There hasn't been a lot of good news for Linux on Mobile, as of late. In November 2015, Jolla, experiencedfinancial trouble, laid off most of its staff, and stopped work on the Jolla tablet. Then in December, Mozilla said it was putting the brakes on Firefox OS.

But Canonical is bucking the trend.

A few weeks after announcing their first Ubuntu tablet, the company has just announced their most powerful Ubuntu phone to date. And the company is not showing any signs of slowing down its  mobile plans.

One clear advantage Canonical has is that doesn’t have to struggle with hardware; in most cases they can run Ubuntu on Android hardware. That’s what they have done in partnership with Bq and Meizu.

But hardware is just one side of the story.

Towards convergence

Today, the mobile phone market is pretty much owned by Android and iOS. BlackBerry and Windows Phone are all but dead. And Canonical, which almost launched a device back in 2009, and arguably could have been dominant if not for Intel's struggle with its Moblin platform, is trying to play catch up in 2016.

Its strategy can be summed up in one word: Convergence. Canonical is creating one code base that will run across devices – mobile phones, tablet, PCs and even smart TVs.

This strategy has its own appeal for users, device manufacturers, and developers.

Let's look at it from a user’s point of view. I use both iPad Pro and Pixel C. They are great consumer devices, but both fail when it comes to doing work. Operating system restrictions make them unsuitable as  laptop replacements.

With Ubuntu, however, the moment I switch to ‘desktop’ mode, I can use my tablet as a general purpose laptop, or plug a monitor to my phone and start working on LibreOffice and GIMP.

From a device manufacturer's point of view, Ubuntu gives them a compelling story to tell their customers and helps them differentiate themselves.

For developers, the convergence strategy is a gift and a curse.

Ubuntu is one of the biggest communities in the Linux desktop world, but in mobile, they are dwarfed by the massive communities of Android and iOS.

To understand the software side of the equation I sat down with Mark Shuttleworth and the Ubuntu team at SCaLE 14x in January. In my discussion with the Canonical engineers I could sense that they need more developers to build more applications around Ubuntu.

What advantage is there for someone to write applications for Ubuntu?

“We have community developers who are working on different apps and when they ran into a platform limitation – what they want to do with their app is not in the API – they work with the OS team with the API developers and get the desired support," said Michael Hall, Community Manager at Canonical. "It allows them to actually implement features in the OS that they need for their apps. This is something you can’t do on any other platform."

Another advantage is that developers have to target only one platform: Ubuntu. Period. Thanks to convergence their apps will run on phones, tablets and desktop. No other platform offers that.

What makes the Ubuntu platform even more appealing is Snappy apps.

Canonical is slowly but surely moving away from apt-get and .deb apps. While the operating system itself will remain Debian based and most core apps, such as Nautilus, may remain .deb based they are working on moving all 3rd party apps to ‘Snappy’.

Eventually Gnome and core components like Nautilus will also move to Snappy, but that’s a long term plan.

Why Snappy?

Snappy is the future of apps on Ubuntu. It has way too many advantages over the traditional .deb apps and it fixes many serious issues. WIth Snappy, developers can package everything -- libraries and dependencies -- that the app needs, without having to worry about which version of the libraries are installed on the system. As a result, developers can use the most cutting edge features of the latest libraries. It’s something similar to what you experience in Windows and Mac OS.

The second clear advantage is that developers can deliver their apps immediately. A few months ago there was conflict between Ubuntu and ownCloud developers over an old, insecure version of ownCloud still being available in Ubuntu’s Universe repositories. When a developer makes their apps available through Ubuntu archives the apps are locked to that version for that release cycle of Ubuntu. That’s what happened to ownCloud.

“Whatever version of an app is in the archive of 16.04 is locked; its frozen for either six months or for two years in case of LTS," said Alan Pope, Community Manager in Ubuntu Engineering Services for Canonical. "In archive we only do security updates; we won’t jump from version 2.0 to 3.0." At that point Hall jumped in and said that in the case of archives it could be a day, week or month-long process. But with Snappy it takes less than a minute to package your app and publish through the Software Center and it is ready to install immediately.

Sergio Schvezov, Software Engineer at Canonical, said that they are also working on making it easier for users to try pre-released versions of software. Just like Chrome OS, users can try ‘beta’, ‘devel’ and ‘stable’ channels to install particular version of apps on their systems.

Hall  told me that their ultimate goal is to use Snappy packages across Ubuntu platforms – from desktops to mobile.

Where is my cloud?

Both Android and iOS offer very tight integration with their cloud services. Canonical doesn’t have any cloud service of its own. It used to have Ubuntu One, but that was discontinued and now the company uses it only to sync app data. When I asked the team, Schvezov said that they are building a platform that enables carriers, hardware partners and even users to pick and choose whatever 3rd party cloud service they want to use on Ubuntu devices.

Working between devices

As someone who recently started using more Apple devices, I like their ‘Continuity’ functionality where you can hand off work between Mac OS and iOS devices. Microsoft is also bringing similar capabilities to Windows with Continuum. Ubuntu doesn’t have any such feature, despite their convergence vision. They do have messaging and telephone apps that allow Ubuntu phone users to also manage their calls and message from the desktop, but that’s all they have. I can’t open the same web page on my desktop that I was reading on my phone.

Pope looks at it from a different perspective. He said that “unlike other platforms, when you access the same data across different devices you are either using different software between devices or software from different developers on each device to be able to access the data. That’s not the case with Ubuntu. In Ubuntu it’s the same device; it’s the same code.  So there is less requirement for all those integrations and all those synchronizations to happen on Ubuntu.” He further added that “synchronization is something we leave to 3rd parties that know it better and we just create a platform that allows them to install their syncing service on the device.“

Where is Ubuntu’s Siri?

iOS has Siri, Android has Google Now, Windows has Cortana, and Echo has Alexa, but there is no artificial intelligence virtual assistant for Ubuntu. The closest thing they can get is Mycroft, which is a Kickstarter-funded open source project.

Hall told me that since Mycroft is still under development they are not sure whether they will integrate it into Ubuntu themselves or make it possible for the Mycroft team, or anyone else to offer something like Mycroft.

Currently the entire team is focused on building Ubuntu as a mobile plus desktop platform where users can run apps securely across devices and where developers can write one app and have it available across devices -- a platform that tries to improve things for the Linux world.

Backed by Shuttleworth

None of this would matter if the founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, the man who is single-handedly funding the project doesn’t have faith in it. I showed Mark Shuttleworth the grim picture of Windows, Blackberry, Firefox OS and Jolla and asked whether he will he continue to invest in phone and how much confidence he has in it. Shuttleworth said that he believes that it’s very important to have a stake in personal computing. He said that he could very easily choose the enterprise path where money is but “if we don’t have any stake in personal computing, then we have no chance of being part of personal computers. We can do an easy things and just go with the money. But I think that will be a waste of some of my gifts.”

When I pressed for his confidence in mobile he said, “We continue to have interesting commercial conversations around phones, tablets and PCs. There are companies that see what we are doing as useful and important whether it's from security POV of consumer experience POV –from the perspective of having something different for a particular market and those conversations are with carriers, very large global carriers as well as manufacturers of devices. So under those circumstances I see no reason to blink.”

After talking to Shuttleworth and the Ubuntu engineers, I can understand why they have confidence in Ubuntu phone. Canonical has the muscle to get hardware partners and also inspire developers to write apps for their platform. It just might be the closest we'll ever get to running pure Linux on mobile devices.

They have to succeed. They must succeed.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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