The death of the (official) Ubuntu phone OS

You may recall I bought a Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition phone from China in June 2016. I wrote up a review here.

Unfortunately Canonical (the company which leads the Ubuntu project) announced they were ceasing development of the Ubuntu phone OS in April this year. (See also this Ars Technica article here.)

Mark Shuttlesworth, the Ubuntu founder, wrote in the announcement that he had high hopes for the Ubuntu mobile OS project, but it never took off:

We care that Ubuntu is widely useful to people who use Linux every day, for personal or commercial projects. That’s why we maintain a wide range of Ubuntu flavours from both Canonical and the Ubuntu community, and why we have invested in the Ubuntu Phone.

I took the view that, if convergence was the future and we could deliver it as free software, that would be widely appreciated both in the free software community and in the technology industry, where there is substantial frustration with the existing, closed, alternatives available to manufacturers. I was wrong on both counts.
In the community, our efforts were seen fragmentation not innovation. And industry has not rallied to the possibility, instead taking a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to those form factors, or investing in home-grown platforms. What the Unity8 team has delivered so far is beautiful, usable and solid, but I respect that markets, and community, ultimately decide which products grow and which disappear.

At the same time, they announced that the Ubuntu desktop environment ‘Unity’ would be discontinued, and Ubuntu would go back to using the Gnome desktop interface.

I’m obviously sad that this happened — I’m a believer in open source software and thought it would be really great if an open source OS could compete against the mobile OS duopoly of Android and iOS. I did always think it would be a long shot, and Canonical has seemingly come to the conclusion that it was a black hole of investment.

Like with FirefoxOS just before it died, I thought that Ubuntu OS was finally getting polished enough that ‘normal’ people could use it, but alas it was not to be.

The community immediately rallied to keep the OS alive – most prominently in the form of ‘UB Ports‘. While it’s cool that they’re trying to keep the OS alive, I’m a bit skeptical that they can succeed where Canonical failed.

Where does that leave my Meizu Pro 5 phone?

Well UB ports provides a ‘legacy’ version of the OS for the Pro 5 with this disclaimer:

Legacy Devices are devices that will only get critical security-updates and bug-fixes. New features might appear from time to time, but the focus is on the core devices listed above. Pull-requests from the community are accepted and will be merged into the images.

Given the drawbacks of running Ubuntu OS on a phone (none of the big apps, etc), this wasn’t good enough for me. A big part of the appeal of the OS for me to begin with was the promise of regular software updates, including new features. A static, buggy, OS isn’t enough.

So I followed some instructions on a forum and replaced Ubuntu OS with Meizu’s version of Android called ‘Flyme OS’. It was pretty painless, and before I knew it I had access to the large Android universe. I could listen to Spotify again, do banking easily, use Firefox, and do a million other things I couldn’t do with Ubuntu.

The one drawback of Flyme OS on the Pro 5 is that it’s based on Android 5.1, which was released in March 2015! I recently received a software update to Flyme 6.0, but the underlying Android version is still 5.1. I think this is the biggest problem with the whole Android ecosystem, and Google can’t move quickly enough to fix it.

The change from Ubuntu to Android really drove home the gap between the two ecosystems, and the huge ground that any challenger to the Android/iOS duopoly would have to make up to be a serious challenger. I think the mobile OS duopoly is a serious problem so I hope it gets broken sometime soon.

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