Ubuntu Touch finds a home on a conflict-free, fair-trade, user-maintainable handset

UBports will demo this smartphone for Linux lovers at Mobile World Congress.

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Fairphone / Rob Schultz

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Handset maker Fairphone is teaming up with the community project UBports, which seeks to get Ubuntu Touch on mobile devices. They will be showing off Ubuntu Touch running on the Fairphone 2 during Mobile World Congress, which starts February 27 in Barcelona. While Ubuntu is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of mobile devices, the phone in question offers some compelling features.

“UBports Foundation will be showcasing its work at the Canonical booth, the company behind Ubuntu. Canonical is planning to tell about the latest developments around the convergence of its devices and UBports Foundation will share its mission ‘Ubuntu On Every Device’ with the visitors,” UBports said in a February 8 press release.

Currently, UBports’ website lists three devices as “fully working as daily drivers:” The OnePlus One, Nexus 5, and the Fairphone 2, with the latter showing all parts as functioning with Ubuntu Touch, save the GPS radio. (Interestingly, the UBports project website for the Fairphone 2 still lists the GSM radio [in addition to the GPS] as a work in progress. However there is a video of two people talking with the handset, so it’s likely the Fairphone 2 project website is out of date.) The website also has instructions for flashing Ubuntu to the Fairphone 2.

There are 10 other phones on UBports' website listed as “in progress,” including the Nexus 5X, 6, 7 (2013), 9, and 10.

The Fairphone 2 boasts more than just the ability to run Ubuntu in the palm of your hand. The company says the phone will be modular in design, allowing users to replace worn-out parts, which extends the device’s lifespan and reduces e-waste. I still mourn the loss of removable batteries and storage, which used to be the norm in Android handsets. By making the phone’s guts replaceable by the user, Fairphone is taking DIY maintenance a step further.

The company also focuses on reducing the amount of negative environmental and social imapcts through recycled and conflict-free supply chains. (Fairphone notes that some 40 elements go into the making of a smartphone, but the company is primarily focused on tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold, cobalt, copper, gallium, indium, nickel, and rare earth metals.)

Challenges ahead

While making Ubuntu a reliable OS for various mobile devices is tough enough, the bigger battle will undoubtedly be adoption. The desktop Linux market share is still quite low compared to Windows and MacOS. And Mozilla's decision to abandon its Firefox OS last year is a testament to the challenges of building an alternative mobile OS in the shadow of iOS and Android.

The stated goal of the UBports community is “to have the open-source software Ubuntu on every device, starting with smartphones.” That’s going to require a lot of work, especially since porting Android ROMs to the wide array of mobile hardware available is itself tricky.

With all of this in mind, it’s encouraging to see an alternative mobile OS try to gain a foothold. For people who aren’t so comfortable surrendering their data and privacy to the likes of Google or Apple, this may be a welcome development. 

You can preorder the Android Fairphone 2 for €529.38 (about $564) right now at Fairphone’s website.

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