Librem 5 and Ubuntu Touch

Mobile Desktop Innovation


Recent news of Ubuntu Touch being ported to the Librem 5 phone promises innovation for mobile desktops.

Purism, which is developing the free and secure Librem 5 phone, is keeping the product in the public’s awareness by regularly releasing partnership announcements. It’s a shrewd strategy, especially since the Librem 5 is over a year away from production. However, the latest announcement – that Ubuntu Touch will be available on the Librem 5 – is even more significant than earlier announcements. The news means that in addition to its other benefits, the Librem 5 will also offer one of the most innovative desktops for mobile devices available. Together, the Librem 5 and Ubuntu promise to show just how innovative free software can be.

The Librem 5 gained recognition in the last months of 2017 after it was the object of a successful crowdfunding campaign by Purism. Skeptics trotted out at least half a dozen reasons why the campaign – let alone the phone – could never succeed. Yet the campaign did succeed, not only reaching its goal of $1.5 million, but an additional $800,000 as well.

For most users, the Ubuntu Touch is associated with the Ubuntu Edge campaign, which tried to raise $32 million and failed. Implicit in the recent partnership announcement is that Purism is poised to succeed where Canonical could not, which should interest those who pledged some $13 million towards the Ubuntu Edge.

However, for the handful of those who bought the BQ Aquaris E4.5 phone or Aquaris M10 tablet (the only commercial products to ship with Ubuntu Touch to date), the announcement may mean something more. When Canonical restructured in April 2017, Ubuntu Touch development was phased out and taken over by the community-based UBports. Little has been heard of Ubuntu Touch, but now, with the announcement of the partnership, there is hope that the first efficient desktop for mobile devices may soon be available. In many ways, Ubuntu Touch is the most promising innovation for desktop environments in several years. At a time when innovation on the free desktop seems all but stalled, the survival of Ubuntu Touch may be of benefit even to those who have no direct interest in the Librem 5.

The Era of Innovative Caution

To understand this statement, some background is needed.

Although window managers existed almost from the start of Linux and other free operating systems, development of the free desktop only began a couple of years before the turn of the millennium. Until about 2005, Gnome, KDE, and Xfce (the top three desktop alternatives) struggled to match the functionality of Windows and Mac OS. As that goal was reached, desktop developers began to innovate. The result was KDE 44, Gnome 3, and Ubuntu Unity. All three were too great of a change. In KDE’s case, KDE 44 was added to distributions before it was ready for general use. Users were outraged and did not hesitate to express themselves.

KDE was quick with new releases and survived its user revolt relatively intact. Gnome lost some of its desktop share, although Gnome-based applications continued to be popular. Despite the millions that Canonical put into development, Unity managed to gain only a few percentage of Ubuntu users and never was ported to some distributions. Meanwhile, Xfce gained in popularity, and Linux Mint forked the popular Gnome 2 desktop under the name of MATE.

By 2012, the revolts were a thing of the past, but the experience had left developers cautious. KDE’s Plasma desktop retained innovations like Activities, but no longer emphasized them. Similarly, Gnome somewhat reluctantly permitted extensions that would make Gnome 3 more closely resemble Gnome 2. In addition, Linux Mint had introduced a new desktop called Cinnamon, for which cautious micro-innovations were the rule. This was the era of caution on the free desktop, and it lingers to this day.

The Trouble with Mobile Desktops

If anything, desktops for phones and tablets show even less innovation. Largely because of the small screen sizes, mobile desktops generally involve repeated taps and screen changes. Even if users do not get lost, retracing their steps hovers at the edge of confusion. However, users endure, because they are accustomed to the inefficiency, and few alternatives exist. Nor do most users care to root their devices or flash the firmware to make changes, out of a fear that they will ruin their devices.

In this dismal state of affairs on desktops, Ubuntu Touch succeeds in doing things differently. Unity, which many find cumbersome on workstations and laptops, comes into its own on a touch screen. Ubuntu Touch also includes root access and the ability to use apps from a standard package repository (which means that porting it to the Librem 5 should be relatively simple, although the interfaces would need improvement).

However, the everyday appeal of Ubuntu Touch is ridiculously simple. Instead of changing screens continually, Ubuntu works with swipes from each edge. In effect, new apps and functionality do not replace the main screen – they slide down into it. The effect may be pure psychology, but swiping into the main screen feels less confusing than the organization of other mobile desktops. In fact, aside from Plasma Active, a long-defunct KDE mobile desktop that appears to heavily influence Ubuntu Touch, it is the only mobile desktop that does not irritate me after a few minutes of use, or that I can imagine using happily on a workstation.

As simple as this arrangement sounds, its effectiveness makes Ubuntu Touch one of the few innovations on the free desktop in the last six years. With computing switching to mobile data, and the amounts of information managed by a desktop far exceeding the amounts for which they were designed, the free desktop needs all the innovation it can muster.

That’s why the news that Ubuntu Touch will be ported to the Librem 5 is important. In fact, as I write, I realize that, despite the Librem 5’s high price and the ruinous exchange rate of the Canadian dollar, I fully intend to save up for one. The combination of freedom and security was already tempting me, and the additional promise of decent navigation on the small screen of my phone is simply too much to resist.

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