Flashback: phones that weren’t, part 4: making a new smartphone OS is hard

Peter, 02 July 2023

The more tech-savvy among you probably know that Android is based on the Linux kernel. But it is nothing like a typical Linux that you may have seen on PCs – or on smartphones.

Nokia and Intel spent a lot of time and money trying to launch a Linux-based smartphone operating system. The Nokia N9 saw the two companies join forces to create MeeGo, the union of Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin. However, it was caught between Symbian and Windows Phone and never lived up to its potential.

There were followups like Samsung’s Tizen, a successor to MeeGo that powered some phones in the past, some smartwatches until recently and is still being used a smart TV platform. There was also Firefox OS, which borrowed Android’s Linux core to speed past the most difficult parts of OS development. But unless you dug into the internals, you may never have known about Tizen’s or Firefox OS’ Linux lineage.

Canonical, the company behind one of the most popular Linux distributions, tried to bring its principles of free, open-source software to the smartphone field with Ubuntu Touch.

Flashback: phones that weren’t, part 3: making a new smartphone OS is hard

Version 1.0 was released in 2013 and was based on Ubuntu 13.10. It ran on phones like the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 4. A later version was ported over to the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Edition. But these were just tech demos primarily aimed at developers.

Canonical itself wanted to build the first-ever Ubuntu Touch phone and in 2013 it turned to IndieGoGo for help with funding a first batch of 30,000-40,000 units. The goal was set at an ambitious $32 million.

At the heart of that campaign was a phone named Ubuntu Edge. It was not intended for retail sales, it would be available only to backers. This was supposed to be a technology demonstrator that paved the way for other Ubuntu phones.

Ubuntu Edge, Canonical’s Linux-powered phone Ubuntu Edge, Canonical’s Linux-powered phone

The phone had fairly powerful hardware. An unnamed “multi-core CPU” was hooked up to 4GB of RAM and 128GB storage (remember, this was in 2013) as well as a 4.5” HD display. For comparison, a Galaxy S4 from the same year had only 2GB of RAM and up to 64GB storage.

But that’s not all, using its MHL connector, the Edge could connect to an external monitor over HDMI and turn into a desktop PC. The phone’s connector could simultaneously do USB On-The-Go, so you could hook up a keyboard and a mouse too. Unfortunately, these mobile-to-desktop transformations never seem to find an audience. Microsoft’s Continuum was similar – except based on the far more popular Windows – and it flopped.

Ubuntu was both a mobile and a desktop OS Ubuntu was both a mobile and a desktop OS

Even the Ubuntu Edge couldn’t escape the shadow of Android and the phone was capable of dual-booting Ubuntu and Android. This was a good way to give backers a peace of mind – even if the whole Ubuntu OS thing didn’t work out, they would still have a high-quality Android phone.

The campaign started off strong with a $600 “For one day only” tier that actually overshot the 5,000 backers target slightly. This was a great deals as the phone was initially set to cost $830.

The campaign was off to a strong start and it hit $3.5 million just 24 hours after it began, then got to $8.5 million in 17 days (it was set to run for a month). Interestingly, Bloomberg spent $80,000 on 100 Edge phones, becoming the first major corporate backer of the project.

Anyway, it quickly became clear that the campaign will never reach its funding target, so Canonical dropped the price of the Edge to the $695 for the last two weeks of the campaign. Then it dropped it even lower, $625, but by that point it was too late.

Flashback: phones that weren’t, part 3: making a new smartphone OS is hard

The deadline arrived with $12,733,521 gathered, 39% of the goal. And with that the dreams of a proper Linux smartphone had once again withered on the vine. But all was not lost and several smartphone makers stepped up.

In late 2014 Spanish phone maker BQ became the first to launch a phone with Ubuntu Touch out of the box. Well, that or Android 4.4 KitKat – the BQ Aquaris E4.5 was offered in stock Google Experience and an Ubuntu Edition flavors.

The BQ Aquaris E4.5 was the first phone with Ubuntu Touch pre-installed The BQ Aquaris E4.5 was the first phone with Ubuntu Touch pre-installed

The Aquaris E4.5 had a 4.5” qHD display and was powered by a MediaTek chipset with a quad Cortex-A7 CPU and 1GB of RAM, plus 8GB storage. It went on sale in February 2015 at a price of €170, it was offered in Spain, Portugal, the UK and Sweden.

The more advanced BQ Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition was unveiled in mid-2015 with a 5” 720p display, the same MediaTek chipset and a slightly higher price of €200.

BQ Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition BQ Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition

In 2016 BQ also released the first Ubuntu Touch Tablet, the Aquaris M10. Canonical’s aspirations for Ubuntu Touch included smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and, eventually, laptops and desktops too. This would have created a unified Ubuntu experience across all platforms.

The BQ Aquaris M10, the first Ubuntu Touch tablet The BQ Aquaris M10, the first Ubuntu Touch tablet

Anyway, this 10.1” tablet had a 1,920 x 1,200px screen and also used a MediaTek chipset (quad A53 at 1.5GHz CPU, Mali-T720MP2 GPU) with 2 gigs of RAM, 16GB storage and a 7,280mAh battery. And as you can tell from the “Ubuntu Edition” in the name, it had an Android version as well. Pre-orders started in March 2016 at €290. There was a cheaper €250 version with a lower resolution 1,280 x 800px screen as well.

BQ wasn’t Canonical’s only partner – the ever-adventurous Meizu joined in and teased the Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition in the build-up to MWC 2015. This version of the phone launched in China in May of that year at a price of CNY 1,800 (around $290 at the time). A month later it arrived in Europe at €300.

Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition Meizu MX4 Ubuntu Edition

The follow-up to that came in early 2016 with the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition. Like the Android version, this was a sleek and powerful device with a large 5.7” 1080p AMOLED display, an Exynos 7420 chipset (from the Galaxy S6), a 21MP camera and an aluminum body that measured only 7.5mm thick. The Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition launched at $370.

Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition

Check out our hands-on with the Ubuntu Edition for a glimpse at the state of Ubuntu Touch. A major UI element were the so-called Scopes – these similar to the swipable home screens on Android, but each was focused on a particular task, e.g. Photos, Music, News, etc.

More companies joined in, but none of the big players showed any interest. Purism’s Librem 5 and Pine64’s PinePhone had plans to support Ubuntu Touch, but those barely moved the needle.

As recently as 2021 an Ubuntu-compatible phone made the news, though not in a good way – The F(x)Tec Pro1-X team ran out of Snapdragon 835 chips and had to switch to the 662.

The F(x)Tec Pro1-X had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and could run Ubuntu The F(x)Tec Pro1-X had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and could run Ubuntu

If you have an old Android phone sitting in a drawer, you can try out Ubuntu Touch – here is the list of supported devices. This list includes Nexus and Pixel phones, OnePlus and Xiaomi, Poco and Nord, some Galaxys, several tablets too.

The project isn’t dead, by the way, just a couple of months ago the UBports Foundation released a new version of Ubuntu Touch based on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS.

After the initial success of Windows Mobile, Microsoft tried to recapture the mobile market twice – once with Kin, then again with Windows Phone. Nokia foresaw the end of Symbian’s domination, but couldn’t see the future clearly enough to pick a winning replacement. BlackBerry couldn’t get back to the glory days either as its innovative BlackBerry OS 10 was met with disinterest. Mozilla failed too with Firefox OS (though KaiOS lives on). Samsung quietly dropped Tizen out of the mobile market too.

And we can add Canonical’s Ubuntu Touch to this list. Android quickly became the default “good enough” OS and it sucked out all the oxygen from the smartphone market – besides Apple, which is doing its own thing with iOS, every company that wants to make smartphones eventually settles on Android. Any other platform just can’t get the critical mass of users, hardware vendors and app developers that is needed to stick around for more than a year or two.


Reader comments

There are many mobile OS that based on Linux but not mentioned in this article, for example Samsung used BadaOS for its Wave series, before that, they also tried LiMo OS (for example Vodafone 360 series). We also have Sailfish OS that still alive...

  • Urs
  • 05 Jul 2023
  • LaE

Making a smartphone os is not hard, is hard to get good people to pay them correctly to made any software!

"Nokia foresaw the end of Symbian’s domination, but couldn’t see the future clearly enough to pick a winning replacement." Err Gsmarena, that's not exactly what happened. I'll tell you, Stephen Elop was the one who started ...

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