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Video CES: Jono Bacon Talks Up Ubuntu for Phones (Video) 93

One of the more interesting conversations Tim Lord had at CES this year was with Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon, who was showing off the Ubuntu Phone that is supposed to be released later this year. According to the Ubuntu website, it "delivers a magical phone that is faster to run, faster to use and fits perfectly into the Ubuntu family." Big words, but if Ubuntu parent Canonical can live up to them, the mobile phone market may soon have an interesting new operating system competitor to shake things up.

Transcript covers both videos

Tim Lord: What’s up with Ubuntu this year?

Jono Bacon: There is a lot going on. You know, a lot of people associate Ubuntu as running on the desktop, or on the server as well, but Ubuntu is actually part of this wider convergence plan that we have been focusing on, which is we started to have Ubuntu on the desktop, and then we took Ubuntu to the cloud. And Ubuntu, is arguably the most popular Linux desktop. It is definitely the most popular operating system in the cloud and then we went to devices where Ubuntu had come out on TV, Ubuntu for Android where you can take a phone, an Android phone, and you can dock it, and then it boots a full Ubuntu desktop. And then most recently, of course, we are showing off the Ubuntu phone.

Tim: People are curious about the phone. Can you give us a little hint of what it can do?

Jono: Yes, it is interesting. We did a lot of user research before we started building the phone around people’s attitudes, and views on current handsets, iPhone and Android. We found a few commonalities there. First of all, they don’t feel like particularly personal experiences. If you look at, for example, an Android phone or an iPhone, if you want music you have to access your music via a music application. It is the same thing with video, by a video application. When you go into communication, you go to a different part of the phone for your email, for your Facebook, for your Google Plus, your Twitter, all that kind of stuff. So you spend a lot of your time juggling between these different applications.

And we wanted to integrate your content that you care about, and the contacts that you care about, really into the core of the phone itself. The other thing which we spent some time on in Ubuntu 12.10 was blurring the line between the web and your device, your desktop or your phone, as an example. We found that people use a mixture of various apps on Linux such as RhythmBox or whatever else; and then applications on the web where your web applications are trapped inside your browser tabs. So we are going to break that connection. So an example is if you are using Google calendar, I don’t want to go to a tab to see my Google calendar, I want to integrate my calendar on my desktop, on my phone... So we’ve really tried to focus on that, that line between the web and your native system as well as integrating the content that you care about really into the heart of everything that we do.

Jono: Now talking more about the phone itself, what are the odds that it is going to be here at the next CES? Are we going to see it as a hardware device available in the next few months?

Jono: We are pretty confident. It has been pretty amazing, the response that we’ve had to it. I mean, obviously, we have been working on this for a while, and we announced it on the 2nd of January and the primary reason we are here at CES is to talk to operators and handset manufacturers who want to ship it on the products. But we’ve been assessing the success of the phone in lots of different ways, which is there have been a phenomenal amount of press interest in it. We have been at CES now since Tuesday, it’s Thursday lunch time, and it has just been a constant stream of people from the industry coming along, constant stream of press.

What was interesting as well was, we reached out to the community, the Ubuntu community and said, look we want you to be part of building this phone, so if you are Q developer, if you are a QML developer, and you are interested, fill in this form and we will get in touch with you about what working on these core apps. We had 500 people filling up forms in the first day. And we have had nearly 1300 people fill in so far. So there is a huge amount of community interest. I have been at Canonical now for six and a half years. I have never seen a product announcement that we have done have this level of interest. So I am really excited about it.

Tim: A lot of people sort of object that in the cell phone world, you’ve got Apple, the 100-pound gorilla, no, the 1000-pound gorilla, and you have got Android which is you know, the beast with the thousand tentacles, so where does a phone with an operating system that is not from one of those two camps, where does that fit into in the world?

Jono: Yeah, we’ve had a few people obviously say, it is a two-horse race. How can you even begin to compete in that race? And if you look at the industry, every three to five years, it turns around, three to five years ago it was Blackberry, and it was Palm, Nokia. Things are obviously are very different right now.

The other thing that we’ve noticed is that people don’t love their Android phones. I mean you have a phone, and you use it, I mean I’ve got one, I’ve got a Galaxy 2, it is nice; it is a nice piece of hardware, it is a nice phone, it is alright, I don’t love it, I use it as a phone, and I use it to do my stuff but I don’t love the experience in it. And I think there are a lot of people out there who love the design and the experience of Apple products, but they don’t want to get locked into the Apple jail, so they use Android because they like the openness of it.

Now we just feel like there is a great opportunity to switch that up with something that is at least as beautiful as an iPhone if not more beautiful and more open than Android. Ubuntu is the only operating system that you can influence in that regard. You can’t really influence Android very easily. You can influence Ubuntu, you can come and join our community, you can be part of the development process. And of course we just have this wider convergence as well, Ubuntu on the desktop, the TV, the phone.

Tim: What about the GUI that we are seeing on Ubuntu? How much of it are you able to preserve across these convergent product lines? Can you have, you know is it still Unity that is on the phone?

Jono: Yeah, I mean, it is all basically in the same codebase, so when we ship an Ubuntu product, whether it is on the desktop or whether it is on the TV or whatever, you’ve really got two layers, you’ve got the foundation layers, the kernel, the display manager, all of that kind of stuff and then you have got the upper layer, which is the UI and then the apps that run on the UI. We have a long history of obviously working on this for the laptops. We ship Ubuntu, we have got relationships with all the major laptop manufacturers, HP, Dell, all of those guys. So things are a little different obviously on the foundation layer for a phone. You have to have a different kernel, it is a different hardware _____06:03, you’ve got to take care of, it’s the same thing with TVs. With the UI layer, the same basic framework, and then it just obviously optimizes for the screen that you are running on.

Tim: And the actual world of cell phones, has it converged enough that it is an easy process to port as long it has got the minimum specs that you are looking for?

Jono: To put what, sorry?

Tim: To put Ubuntu on a phone, as long as it has the minimum specs you need?

Jono: Oh, yeah. So right now as an example, we are running – we are actually using the Android kernel, because when we are talking to handset operators, we want to lower the bar as much as we can. An Android kernel, most of the hardware enablements are being done already, so you can say, we have Android kernel, we run Ubuntu phone on top of it, and it will work on basically any phone that could run Android.

Tim: Do you want to swap out eventually and have an Ubuntu kernel as well?

Jono: Yeah, that is something we could have a conversation with a handset operator, a handset manufacturer about it. If they say we don’t want to use Android kernel, we want to build a custom roll-your-own kernel for this specific device. We have been doing Linux now for quite a while, so we could definitely do that too.

Tim: Can we see a little bit about what the phone can do?

Jono: Yeah. Sure. One of the goals that we have here was to build an OS that doesn’t depend on any hardware buttons. Most handset manufacturers want to have a low bill of materials, and the buttons get in the way. You basically want a phone where the screen takes up pretty much the entire space. So there is no buttons on this. This is using a Galaxy Nexus as the reference platform right now. We also wanted to build something that is deeply personal that integrates your content throughout the phone experience.

So if I switch it on, it is personal from the get-go. If you see this thing, it is called the Welcome Screen. And the Welcome Screen is a personal reflection of you and what you are doing. So it shows you how many tweets you have received, how many unread messages you might have, any calls you might have missed, that kind of stuff. And this representation here, this artist representation, varies as well between phones and users. So it is sole design touches like that that we feel makes it a desirable experience for people.

Jono: And so the other thing in trying to build an UI that doesn’t depend on the hardware buttons. What we’ve did is we’ve optimized and hot rodded each of the edges of the phone to do different things. So for example, I can slide up on the left and we are seeing a launcher. This will look very familiar to Ubuntu desktop users. You know this has got the common applications that you might want to use, your favorite applications basically live here. So what we can do is: Well, is if I slide out, we have this Ubuntu button on the bottom, if we tap that, we then see our home screen.

Now Ubuntu desktop users, this is basically kind of how the Dash works and the different lenses that live inside the Dash. So the home view here provides an aggregation of the different types of content that are available on your phone. Most of us own videos and music and applications and then obviously have our social media connections and our phone connections and whatever else. So we can flip through our favorite user apps, missed calls, new film releases; as an example, the film releases is based upon your viewing habits. If you like comedy, then you can see a lot of comedy recommended here; and music as well.

Interesting as well, is that we connect Ubuntu One which is your personal cloud into all of these Ubuntu devices. So if you buy an album on your phone, then it will be internally synced to all of the other devices by the Ubuntu One. That’s the plan.

Tim: It sounds like there is some AI there along the lines of Netflix or other recommendation engines?

Jono: Yeah, exactly.

Tim: Is that all homegrown by Ubuntu?

Jono: Yeah. So this provides a nice overview of your content, but then you typically want to delve into the specific content types, in much the same way that the Dash works on the desktop. So if I slide right, I can look at my apps, I can see my frequently used applications, less frequently used apps that are installed, as well as apps available for download. And this also works like the Dash in the sense of you know, I have got the search box up here, if I do a search in there for Angry Birds, it will update this view based upon my search terms.

So for example, if I have got Angry Birds installed on my phone, I can just tap it and I am good to go. You don’t even have to use a software center in that regard. We will ship a software center, but it is mainly going to be for browsing or ratings and reviews and that kind of stuff. So we have got apps here, we have got videos, you can see obviously videos on the phone itself, as well as videos that you have bought in the cloud or videos that you have saved into the cloud. We got people, we have got music.

Now one of the goals that we set out with this as well, was to really blur this line between the web and the device. I mentioned earlier on about being trapped inside your browser tabs. A good example of this is in the people’s view here. This is kind of like an address book. It shows people you are in contact with. The red and the green little dots, that shows when they are online or whether they are available right now on their instant messenger or social networks. If I tap one of these, I can see this person _____11:16, I can see their most recent Facebook status, I can see their contact details.

Now what I could do, if the internet wasn’t down right now, is I could tap his Facebook status there and it will take me to the Facebook mobile site. So it is really easy for me to instantly reply to messages that are on my phone.

You can write applications for the Ubuntu phone in either HTML5 using QML, this is part of the QT tool kit, we have full OpenGL support. So if I load a native app, we will load the Gallery. So the Gallery is basically a big list of your pictures and your videos, broken in a day by day basis. And it is really slick, simple, and organic kind of interface.

One of the things we did back when we first introduced Unity was to really optimize as much screen estate as possible. We won’t need to focus on the content. We worked hard to get rid of all the chrome that typically clutters up operating systems, that’s even more important on a phone when you have got a much smaller screen. So when we are looking at this app, we just got the day by day breakdown, we can slide it around.

So, for example, if I load this, I talked earlier on about how the left edge is used for your commonly used applications. Well, the bottom edge used here, this is for functionality inside that app. So if I slide up here, I can now see for example, controls, I can see controls for the Gallery application itself.

Now one of the goals that we also set out to achieve here was to make configuring your phone as easy as possible. We did some user research into common use cases across iPhone and Android and configuring your phone was seen as a pretty disruptive journey. Because what happens is you are looking at an application like your Gallery here. If you want to configure your phone, you have to get out of your app, you have to look at your big list of apps, you have to go to settings, you have to go choose a category, hopefully you picked the right category, you configure it, you picked the wrong category, you have to pick up another one, and then you have to get back to your application.

We found that most people who were using a phone want to configure fairly common areas, such as which wireless network am I on, whether I am using Bluetooth or not, which device is used, change my date and time, my power settings, that kind of stuff. All the other settings can live in a separate settings thing. These are the common things that people want to use.

So this is what the top edge of the screen is for. You can see these indicators along the top just like in the Ubuntu desktop. We can slide left and right or you can select between them, so for example, like the date and time, we can configure that, or we could go to Our Networks. Let’s say, Our Networks is an example.

And then on the far left, we have got our Messaging Menu, and this again is something that we have on Ubuntu desktop. This pulls together all of your different messaging networks into one place. Because we found, at the end of the day, you are talking to people, whether it is on Facebook or Google Plus or Twitter or phone or SMS, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you see the content and you respond to it. So this pulls it all together into one view, and then I can tap one of these entries and I can respond right there. So it provides a real quick access to them.

So in a nutshell so far, the left side of the screen is obviously for your frequently used applications, the bottom part of the screen, the bottom edge is for controls and applications, the top edge is for configuring your phone as well as getting to your messages. And then the right edge we devoted to multitasking. We found that multitasking doesn’t work particularly efficiently on most of the current phones. It’s a bit clunky. Most people tend to use like three to six applications and have them in regular rotation. So this is what the right edge is for.

I just want to make sure that I have got another app open to demo this. Just make sure that it is going to load the camera, so this is obviously the camera app running. I can just slide from the right edge and it takes me back to my Gallery application. It is really quick, simple, and sleek, just to move between your different apps, and then if you want to get back to the home screen, just one big swipe, and then we are there. That is pretty much how it works.

Tim: Jono, if somebody already has an Android phone, one that’s capable of running this OS, can they download and install it?

Jono: So we are going to be releasing images in the next few months for the Galaxy Nexus that has been our reference phone that we have been using. And you will be able to take the images, you will be able to install them in your phone, you will be able to play with them. It is unlikely that we are going to release a general purpose distribution of the phone, for a few reasons. One is that most people don’t tend to install operating systems on their phones. Secondly, the hardware specifics around a phone OS are very very specific. There are different radios and that kind of stuff.

So it’s a bad use of our resources to work directly with the handset manufacturers to make it work on their hardware; however, obviously all of this is going to be open source. So you will be able to get the Ubuntu phone OS, open source, so if you want to take and you want to build your platform, then obviously you can do that, your own phone you can do that

Tim: It is great to see things like XDA developers too that are developing. They are also taking the Android kernel and doing interesting things with it.

Jono: Yeah. I mean, I think there is a great opportunity. There are not many open source companies in this space, and Ubuntu has got a long heritage of this, we are a very open community, we have been openly governed since the beginning, and we have got a passionate developer base and I think that there is a great opportunity for us to do this. And I think the convergence is the key, it’s the idea that I love my Ubuntu phone, I would like to get an Ubuntu TV and everything connects me together and everything is open in the way that works.

Tim: Now part of the convergence you are talking about is based around the interface called Unity and you also talked about your passionate users, you have a lot of passionate detractors on that front. Does it influence the company that a lot of people have complained publicly about not liking Unity, does it change the direction that it has been developed?

Jono: Yeah, it does, I mean it is one of those situations where you do your best to try and build a product that people like, that people are going to use, a project that is open and all the rest of it, and then there are going to be some people who are not going to like that. Everyone has got their own approach of how they handle that feedback. I think the way I handle it and the way, I think, Mark Shuttleworth does and Rick Spencer, he is my boss, the director of Ubuntu Engineering.

The way we tend to approach this is, when people have constructive facts orientated feedbacks that they say, you made this decision, not really happy about this for these reasons, these are things I would recommend to fix this decision, that kind of feedback is fantastic, and that really influences everybody.

Tim: I think that seems to have made a big change also with the Amazon shopping lines, that there has been somewhat of a pushback.

Jono: Exactly. And we are seeing some folks who have come forward and given us really prescribed feedback about, you know we are not happy about this, and that is great feedback to have. People who just vent and complain on Slashdot or on various other websites, if it is just unfettered emotional whining, I don’t really pay attention to that. I mean I pay attention to the general pulse of the community obviously, but what we are really interested in doing is having a conversation, not just listening to someone screaming at us.

And I would say that that’s the same with pretty much anyone who builds any kind of software. It is the same kind of approach. The Amazon thing is an interesting example, because Ubuntu has been through a real cultural shift, I mean I have been working on Ubuntu for over six years now, and we have changed from just being a project to being the product and the project. So we are not just a simple equivalent of something like Debian or Fedora or Mint or whatever. We are trying to build a platform that you can go and buy on your phone, you can go buy on your TV or whatever else. So there is that really delicate balance between the commercial motivations of someone like Canonical and affiliate revenue and how that is all handled, and obviously the community, and how the community handles that as well.

So it has been a really delicate balance. There has been sometimes I think we got the balance wrong, and there has been sometimes that we got the balance right, but I think overall the general approach that we are trying to do here, we are trying to do the best by both parties essentially.

Tim: One more thing. Talking about balance and commercial interests, how does the phone make Ubuntu – how does it make Canonical money?

Jono: It is a good question. It is pretty much the same as the rest of the devices as well. Canonical makes money in lots of different ways. One way is custom engineering, so if a handset manufacturer comes forward and says we love the phone, we want to put it on that, or a TV manufacturer says the same thing, then we will work with them to enable the Ubuntu phone or Ubuntu TV for example, on their hardware. So we will take their reference implementation and then we’ll make it work.

We also work with them along the business strategy, around marketing, all that kinds of stuff, and then inside of Ubuntu itself, you can buy music, you can buy videos, that kind of stuff. We obviously take a little sliver of the revenue that comes in there, the affiliate revenue. And also, if someone sells applications in Ubuntu, we take a little sliver of revenue there.

Tim: But it is all open source, there is nothing secret about it?

Jono: Everything is open source, yeah. You can go and get it, you can download it, you can use it. And we are going to be having a big push in the coming months, around getting the community interested in participating in the phone itself. So on the 2nd of January we released the phone, and we invited the community to participate in the development of the core apps, and we’ve had nearly 1300 people who expressed an interest in doing that. So my team is going to be working with those guys to figure out who’s working on what and get their designs ready, and have them working on the platform as well, so.

Tim: It is all very exciting.

Jono: Yeah, I’m really stoked.

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CES: Jono Bacon Talks Up Ubuntu for Phones (Video)

Comments Filter:
  • by scorp1us ( 235526 ) on Thursday February 07, 2013 @02:56PM (#42822727) Journal

    Nokia pulled the plug on meego before the product even hit the market. The N9 was not released in any WP7 capable market. It was guarenteed to tank on business reasons due to the MS agreement, not due to lack of Nokia trying to make a new platform but failing.

  • Dock it! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by emblemparade ( 774653 ) on Friday February 08, 2013 @12:11AM (#42828825)

    I'm surprised that the biggest deal about Ubuntu phone isn't mentioned!

    You'll be able to plug this phone into a dock (or otherwise connect it to a big monitor, keyboard and mouse) and use it essentially like Ubuntu desktop. There, you'll be able to run all your usual desktop applications as well as your phone applications, on a big screen with full resolution. (The do need to be built for ARM, but already most of the software in the Ubuntu Software Center has ARM versions.)

    Nobody does this yet. There are dockable Android phones, but Android is not a desktop OS, and the experience on a desktop is quite miserable, both in terms of UX (mouse support is awkward) and in terms of available applications.

    Phones are powerful computers! It's silly that we carry all that power around with us and yet can't apply it towards the usual desktop experience. I see the Ubuntu phone as finally being able to bridge this gap.

    Even more: I can imagine desktop applications that make use phone features. GPS is not something we usually have in laptops, but phones have it, and there can be cool desktop apps that make use of it. And there's tilt-control: I can imagine big desktop games making use of tilt: the phone will become something like a game "controller" (even though the entire computer is inside, too). And, of course, you have cellular internet built in. In a way, phones, as hardware, offer more features than desktops, and app developers will surely take advantage of it!

    I'm very excited about this feature, and hope to see it fronted more as one of the big advantages of Ubuntu phone!

Logic is a pretty flower that smells bad.