Archive for Linux

Ubuntu Phone OS: Initial Thoughts

ubuntu-logoLooks like Canonical is serious about making 2013 a big year for the Ubuntu project. As I am sure you are aware, Canonical revealed the Ubuntu Phone OS earlier this week. Unfortunately, like most Linux enthusiast, I have not been able get my dirty little mitts on a device running the new operating system but have been reading everything that Canonical and other sources have written about it. I really would love an Ubuntu-based phone, but have some serious misgivings about the OS: Canonical  doesn’t have carrier relationships, the mobile market is maturing, and you can’t buy an Ubuntu Phone today.

Carriers are incredibly powerful in the mobile space and it is more than a little difficult to release a product without their approval and cooperation. To date, Canonical has no public relationship with any carrier and has never released any sort of device that uses cellular technology*. If you know the history of the iPhone and Apple’s interactions with the major US carriers to get the original iPhone on the market, then you know how difficult dealing with them can be. The telcos are old companies and they run their business in a very old school manner, basing a lot of what they do on relationships.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Canonical can get a good carrier relationship to the point where the carrier actually promotes and pushes the Ubuntu Phone; make no mistake here — the carriers do push certain phones over others in the stores via ‘sales incentives’. The last time a carrier really stood behind one platform was a huge success for the platform — the platform was Android and the campaign was Verizon’s ‘Droid’ campaign. It’s fair to say that Verizon made Android a household name and can be credited with a lot of the platforms early success, but would they do it again? Would any carrier when they can just work with any of the hundreds of Android manufactures and get a platform they know they can sell? It is widely held that the ‘Droid’ campaign was designed to compete directly with the iPhone, an AT&T exclusive at the time. The market today is different, however, and if the carriers want to push handsets other than the iPhone (perhaps because they can strike a better financial arrangement with a different manufacturer than Apple), they already have the Android powerhouse and the Windows 8 darkhouse. The market is matured and there isn’t just one platform anymore. Worse still for Canonical (and Microsoft but more on that later), a lot of everyday users have spent a lot of money on apps for Android and iOS. I believe that this creates something of a platform lock in scenario that most consumers would be unwilling to move from one platform to another, because they have purchased apps and other content that cannot be moved between platforms.

It’s 2013. You can’t make a huge mobile announcement and not actually have anything consumers can buy, but that’s just what Canonical did. Of course, they will get a lot of Ubuntu fans (myself included) installing the OS on a spare Nexus but, for the mass market, they have just squandered the excitement that the market displays around a new platform launch. Worse still, they have not announced any retail partners. The sad truth is ‘normals’ (non-geeks) buy their devices in carrier retail stores or other outlets. If the Ubuntu Phone does not have a retail presence, then, for a huge market segment, it might as well not exist.

This article has been focussed on showing the issues with an Ubuntu Phone. That does not mean that I am not an Ubuntu fan. In fact, I would it to do well, since more competition in the space is good for developers and the market as a whole. Questions? Comments? Find me on Twitter and Google+. This post was brought to you by Code Journal and Fingertip Tech, INC.


*UPDATE: Thanks to Arthur for pointing out that they did in fact release a netbook running Ubuntu in cooperation with Vodafone. However, they have never released a phone with carrier support.

Dell XPS 13 Review pt2: Software Side

If you haven’t read it already, please take a look at my last post for a quick review of the Dell XPS 13’s hardware; this review will take a look at Ubuntu 12.04 on the laptop. A few things of note: Ubuntu was installed via the standard ISO, Dell’s Sputnik PPAs were added via apt-get after the installation was completed, and any and all proprietary drivers are being used on my machine.

The Good: Ubuntu, as always, installs cleanly and easily. The system promptly notified me of a number of updates and provided me with a helpful GUI for installing them. Ubuntu runs stable on the XPS and Dell has done a good job of providing any extra software for the XPS’s hardware via its PPAs. Unity, Ubuntu’s relatively new and somewhat controversial desktop environment, performs almost flawlessly on the XPS 13 and is a welcome update to the somewhat retro GNOME 2 desktop environment that preceded it.

The Bad: The system is for the most part fine, however, there are a few small but noticeable issues. If when the laptop comes out of sleep, adjusting the screen’s brightness does not function until the system is restarted. By default, the user is forced to enter his root password each time the system starts to connect to wifi; this is relatively easy to change for an Ubuntu power user, but the ‘out of the box’ experience is not ideal.

The Ugly: Canonical has done a great job with this latest long term release of Ubuntu and there really isn’t anything ugly about it; though, it is likely that Unity detractors would disagree.

The Verdict: Despite the XPS 13’s abysmal screen and finicky trackpad, it still runs Ubuntu (with the help of Dell’s Sputnik project) quite well.

Dell XPS 13 Review pt 1

Listeners of Coder Radio will probably know that my primary mobile production machine is no longer a Macbook Pro but rather a Dell XPS 13 running Ubuntu Linux. I’ve received a lot of emails and questions over social networks asking how the machine is to work in for a full time software developer, so I’ve written up this review of the hardware. To be clear, I will be publishing a second piece on working (more or less) full time in Ubuntu that focuses on the software in the next week or so.

The Good: The Dell XPS 13 is a great looking machine in terms of industrial design. In a lot of ways, it looks a bit more modern than even the Macbook Air which it clearly attempts to emulate. In terms of weight, it comes in just under three pounds. The battery life is more than acceptable and the machine boots and resumes from sleep almost instantly due to its SSD hard-drive.  In both Windows and Ubuntu, the XPS feels peppy even with its relatively diminutive four gigabytes of RAM.

The Bad: The trackpad is one of the worst laptop trackpads I’ve worked with in years. On both Windows and Ubuntu, modifications to system settings had to be made in response to the trackpad’s general clumsiness; out of the box the pad seems far too sensitive to accidental swipes and taps from the user’s palm. Another pain point is the fan — it’s loud. Worse still, the fan starts even while doing the most mundane of computing tasks; for example, I currently have this Google Chrome tab with three others and the XChat IRC client open and the fan sounds like the small aircraft of an amature pilot.                       

The Ugly: The screen is so bad it’s offensive. Where Dell has managed to match or even surpass Apple’s attention to detail in terms of the industrial design of the case, they quickly revert back to the subpar quality we have come to expect from PC manufacturers pinched between the demand for low prices and razor thin profit margins.

The Verdict: The XPS 13 is by  no means a bad machine. In fact, it is more than serviceable for most users, however, it would be advisable to wait to see what the next model in the series is like if you do not need a machine today. Does it stack up against the Macbook Air? Sadly, no. Dell’s failings in the screen and trackpad only further highlight the quality of the Air’s screen and elegance of it’s trackpad. If you don’t mind Mac OS X, you’ll be much happier with the Air.

Dell’s Project Sputnik

Been to a developer conference or meetup recently? If you have, you might have noticed something odd. A large portion of the attendees using Macs. Now if that conference was an iOS or OS X developer event, then it probably makes  a lot of sense, but what about web and backend developers? Is there are reason for all those Macs? Well, that’s a question that Dell has set out to answer with their Project Sputnik.

Sputnik is an initiative to design a custom spin of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS for the Dell XPS 13. If you don’t know the XPS 13 is one of Dell’s ultrabooks. Dell wants to address the web developer market that is so fond of Apple.

I am really excited about this. Ubuntu was at one time my dev OS of choice thanks to apt-get. Currently, dell is not offering a pre-configured machine with the 12.04 image, but you can download it here and they claim that if there is enough interest they may start offering XPS’s preconfigured with Ubuntu, so if you are interested in one of these machines or just a Linux fan, let them know.