Ubuntu finally comes to phones, but don't expect major retail sales push for at least 12 months

BARCELONA, Spain--After a three-year gestation period, the Ubuntu operating system is finally on real, live smartphones that are being sold to consumers. However, don't expect a huge retail or advertising push for the platform on phones this year, according to Ubuntu's top mobile executive.

The Ubuntu platform, produced by the company Canonical, is an operating system that can run on multiple form factors, and already powers PCs and tablets, as well as network servers. In an interview with FierceWireless last week at Mobile World Congress, Cristian Parrino, Canonical's vice president of mobile, said the company has come up with a platform that adds value for consumers and developers. He said the unique nature of the platform will take time to seep into consumers' minds, but he said Canonical is "absolutely" committed to delivering Ubuntu on phones long term.

Ubuntu is now on a smartphone from Spanish consumer electronics and software development company BQ, which is selling the entry-level Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition in Europe for around $182 through a series of flash sales. The other phone, a higher-end device from Chinese manufacturer Meizu called the MX4 Ubuntu, is set to hit Europe sometime in the next 60 days, with a release in China coming sometime in the summer.

Yet Parrino said it will take time for Ubuntu phones to first get traction within the Ubuntu developer community, and then with early adopters and finally with general consumers. "I don't expect to be able to put phones that we brought to market three weeks ago on retail shelves for at least 12 months," he said. "The story is going to propagate. There's at least 12 months before that story is known by people on the street. Equally, the ecosystem has to mature."

The challenges facing Ubuntu are immense, especially after Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android shipped on around 1 billion devices in 2014. Yet Parrino said Ubuntu is designed to stand out. "The two things that we need to do is deliver something of value to users that's different than what's out there today," Parrino said. "And the second thing, which is really difficult, is be relevant to developers even when you have zero users."

How does a relatively small firm like Canonical plan to crack into a global smartphone market in which Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has poured billions of dollars during the past three years only to come away with less than 3 percent market share?

"We came up with a brand new way for people to interact with the phone that basically unleashes the content and services that are typically hidden behind apps and bring them directly into the screen in a way that is much more natural to users," Parrino said.

That new way of interacting with phones is called Scopes. Scopes is a toolkit that enables developers to group different apps and services together on one page on the phone. For example, users can customize a "today" Scope that has the date, time, weather, their calendar, recent calls, recent messages and news. There are also photo Scopes that group photos on the phone, photos from Facebook and photos from Instagram, and similar Scopes for music and videos. However, developers can create Scopes based on their apps or other content.

Moreover, according to Parrino, what would take a developer three or four months to create on Android or iOS can be done on Ubuntu via the Scopes SDK in around half a day. The platform also supports native QML coding and HTML5 apps.

"The phone takes the form of the things that I do on the device," he said. "And I decide what Scopes are there, what Scopes are not there, which feeds go into each Scope."

Users interact with Ubuntu phones via swiping gestures. A bottom up swipe lets users see their Scopes and customize them or get new ones from an online store. A swipe from the left loads a launcher with popular apps and the platform's home screen. A swipe from the top down reveals system settings or settings in a Scope or app, and a swipe from the right is a multitasking gesture.

"To us, it's our weapon to break that chicken-and-egg ecosystem dilemma that nobody's has been able to do, even Android," Parrino said. "Android is still the second choice of developers [after iOS] even though they have 80 percent of the devices in the market."

Parrino said wireless carriers and device makers can also use the platform to create their own Scopes for their apps and services. "We let OEMs and operators create differentiation for themselves," he said.

The goal, Parrino said, is to get Ubuntu phones into the hands of the right kinds of consumers who will appreciate a different experience. Although the platform has more than 1,000 Scopes and apps, Parrino said the Ubuntu community needs to do a lot to make the platform "consumer-grade" by adding features like the ability to retweet from a Twitter Scope and adding popular apps like WhatsApp.

"So it is a journey," he said "What I do expect is to build an unbelievable base of user advocacy because we are delivering something new, something that's different. And there are a lot of people that are craving something that's different."

For more:
- see this The Verge article
- see this TechCrunch article

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