How free is the Ubuntu phone?

Nico Rikken nico.rikken at
Fri Feb 13 07:20:16 UTC 2015

Dear Paul,

I got a lot of useful info via a recent Linux Unplugged podcast [1]
mainly covering the release of the phone. The problem with
phone-hardware in general, is the fact that a build is needed for a
specific phone since auto-discovery of peripherals like on a regular
computer is missing. Add to that the fact that electronics are developed
more rapidly than foss-drivers an be developed (please read my blogpost
relating to this issue [2]). So unless you have a say in the
electronics, it is very hard and especially time-consuming to develop
this lowest layer as foss. For example the Fairphone has had to stop
offering system-upgrades to their phones because of these issues [3],
and that is also why project like Neo900 and GTA04 exist.

So considering that a shipped product is better than a dreamed up one,
Ubuntu had to use the proprietary board-support-package with drivers in
order to get a kernel running. What is nice of the Ubuntu Phone in
particular, is that they've added an additional layer in respect to the
Android ecosystem by separating the firmware in a device-specific part
and an Ubuntu-part. In this way they can keep updating the Ubuntu-part
indefinitely indefinitely and add the lowest layer to create an image
per phone. So rather than devices being stuck with old firmware like on
Android, you can keep your phone up to date.

I hope that you'd be able to replace the middle Ubuntu-layer and the top
Userland layer to run other systems, although I lack insight in that.
Then again somebody has been able to reverse engineer the lower layer
for the Nexus 5 and therefore there now exists a version for the Nexus 5
as well (although somewhat buggy still). So in this regard anyone can
add support for specific hardware and stack the top layers on it.

The Bq phone is based on a phone being shipped with Android, so to
answer you questions (please correct me if I'm wrong):
- No open bootloader (although it is probably not locked)
- No modem separation as they mostly come intergrated (please look into
the GTA04 effort [4] for this)
- Non-free drivers are needed in the lowest layer
- The Ubuntu-store (yet to be officially launched) for the phone would
allow non-free programs to be installed, but I guess that is up to the
* I'm not able to answer whether or not non-free code is shipped apart
from the board-support-package. Considering Ubuntu's practice in
general, I would assume they favour free, but would eventually choose
based on usability or performance.

Either way, I nearly bought one but I just missed out by the flash-sale.
I'd definitely be ordering one, because I believe this stack is much
more freedom-respecting than Android. More frustrating my perfectly fine
phone is still on Android 2.2 with a lack of application support and a
whole load of known bugs. I haven't looked deep enough into Jolla or
Tizen to judge them. Maybe others can elaborate more on this.

Thanks for asking the question and initiating me to write an overview,
which is likely to be reformatted as a blogpost for reference.

Kind regards,
Nico Rikken
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