Ubuntu Phone is go

16 Feb 2015

After an over-ambitious failed attempt in 2013, Canonical has finally launched the long-awaited Ubuntu phone in Europe in a flash sale that crashed its servers and sold out within minutes.

In an exclusive interview, Canonical VP for mobile Cristian Parrino said that at its peak, the webstore was taking 12,000 orders a minute and that everyone at Canonical was stunned at the phenomenal reception the phone had received. However, he was tight-lipped about the actual number of phones sold.

He said that the Asian launch of the Ubuntu phone will soon follow in partnership with chinese smartphone maker Meizu. By the end of Summer the Ubuntu Phone will launch in the United States with an as-yet undecided manufacturing partner.

Canonical has promised a major announcement at Mobile World Congress.

The BQ Aquarius 4.5 Ubuntu Edition, to give its official name, went on sale only within the EU at 9 AM CET on 11 February direct from its manufacturing partner BQ’s website which promptly crashed and intermittently worked for the next hour before selling out. The level of frustration of people unable to check out and then missing out on the phone led Canonical and BQ to launch a second batch at in the evening which sold out again within less than five minutes.

The Aquarius uses an entry-level quad-core Mediatek chipset and has a 4.5-inch screen with qHD (540x960) resolution. But of course it is the Ubuntu Phone OS and its scope gesture-based UI and promise of openness that is the star attraction rather than the hardware.

But surely Canonical must have anticipated the demand given that Ubuntu’s earlier attempt at a phone, the Ubuntu Edge, broke records for crowdfunding with its 22,000 backers pledging over $12 million. But despite that, the Edge failed to reach its lofty $32 million target and did not get off the ground.

Parrino said that the Edge was totally different from what was just launched.

The Edge was a premium device that was designed to double as a desktop replacement, had a target price of $800 compared to the Aquarius 4.5’s much more humble 169 Euro ($190) price-tag and rather more down-to-earth aspirations without reinventing the entire Linux desktop stack.

But ultimately it was not so much what Parrino said that mattered but how he said it. His voice was full of excitement and he was clearly ecstatic at the attention from the day’s successful launch..

Parrino said Canonical had taken the concept of a flash sale from the Chinese startups which had successfully used the technique to enter a new market while building up new supply chains and generating a buzz around the project This initial batch was aimed at early adopters with hardly any apps available at this early stage.

“There’s happiness and joy for those who made it, there’s amazement for those who are lurking and there is frustration. Unfortunately that is the nature of a flash sale,” he said.

However, judging from the social media reaction, disappointment, frustration and indeed anger far outweighed the praise, something the company will no doubt have to deal with going forward.

At launch, Ubuntu Phone relies a lot on HTML web apps. However the flagship native app on the Ubuntu phone is instant messaging app Telegram, a Whatsapp or LINE competitor that has gained popularity in today’s post-Snowden world due to its use of strong, if somewhat haphazard and controversially designed, end-to-end encryption.

Asked if it would be reading too much between the lines to say that Ubuntu was taking privacy and security first with the focus on Telegram, Parrino said it while Ubuntu was not trying to make a political statement, it was a valid observation. He noted how Ubuntu Linux is recognised as one of the most secure Linux desktop distributions available.

It remains to be seen though how much of the Ubuntu experience really rubs off on the phone. Daily OS upgrades on a PC is much easier than on a mobile phone.

The buzz surrounding the Ubuntu Phone clearly shows that the technophile early adopters are howling for an alternative to the ubiquitous, ever more tightly controlled Android.

Firefox OS was aimed too low. Sailfish and Tizen, despite being nominally open, are too tightly tied to their respective manufacturers. Ubuntu’s choice of multiple partners immediately sidesteps those problems.

The inclusion of encrypted IM app telegram bodes well for the direction that Canonical is taking. Tapping into the vibrant community of Ubuntu developers is promising, though it remains to be seen how much cross-pollination will happen as a result.

The race is well and truly on for the alternative smartphone OS.

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