Ubuntu developments: 15.04 Beta 1 and the first Ubuntu phone

The split development paths of Ubuntu desktop and the converged Ubuntu Desktop Next mean that, so far, Ubuntu 15.04 for the desktop looks underwhelming. Meanwhile, the first Ubuntu smartphone, the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition, goes on sale.

As the 23 April release date approaches, it's beginning to look as though Ubuntu 15.04 (Vivid Vervet) on the desktop will be a disappointing release. We've been exploring the first beta, which is released on 26 February.

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The Ubuntu 15.04 Beta 1 desktop. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

As we reported in our preview of Ubuntu 14.10 last year, the Ubuntu developers had announced that development for the desktop would split into separate releases with standard Unity7 and converged Unity8 desktops. What this means right now is that users downloading and installing the current (Unity7) Ubuntu 15.04 release will see an Ubuntu Desktop that, at least as far as this beta is concerned, is virtually identical to Ubuntu 14.10. Those trying the (Unity8) Ubuntu Desktop Next 15.04 development release will see an unfinished operating system that still retains much of the look and feel of Ubuntu for Phones. Hence, in part, the lack of excitement.

When the desktop was the development focus, some interesting new features would appear in the betas of almost every release. However, for the last two years Canonical's energies have mainly been focused on the development of Ubuntu for Phones, and it has become clear that a fully converged desktop running Unity8 and the Mir display server would only emerge some time after the launch of the first Ubuntu phones.

For now, the only real hints of convergence for the desktop appear in Desktop Next, which is based on software developed for Ubuntu for Phones that's only slowly being adapted to tablets and eventually the desktop. In an October 2014 blog post, Will Cooke, the new Desktop Team manager at Canonical, said that while the plan was for Unity8 to appear with 16.04, there was a possibility that Unity8 might land in Ubuntu 15.10 as the default desktop, with Unity7 as an option.

Over three years ago Mark Shuttleworth appeared to challenge both Microsoft and Apple by declaring that Ubuntu would be the first fully converged operating system. Now, with Microsoft's announcement of Windows 10, which is due out later this year with the promise it will run on desktops, tablets and phones, it looks like Canonical may have lost that race -- unless Canonical can surprise everyone and pull Desktop Next out of the bag for 15.10.

To indicate that 10 really is a new departure for Windows, Microsoft is skipping a release number to go straight to Windows 10 from Windows 8.1. A technical preview of Windows 10 is available for download, which will run on some smartphones.

Some small changes

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The LIMs toggle in System settings. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

While the option to switch to Locally Integrated Menus (LIMs) was introduced in 14.04, this is now the default in Ubuntu 15.04, with the menus appearing in the top bar of every window. The LIM switch is still provided as an option in the System settings / Appearance / Behaviour tab, so they can still be switched to the menu bar at the top of the desktop. As implemented in 14.04, LIMs sometimes tend to either be non-responsive or will cause a window to minimise unexpectedly. This bug seems to be fixed in 15.04.

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For no apparent reason, in 15.04 the height of the progress bar has been greatly reduced. Image: Terry Relph-Knight/ZDNet

Upstart or systemd?

There were rumours that Canonical might switch to systemd as the initialisation manager in this release, but so far the beta still runs upstart, the init manager developed for Ubuntu. A search of the package database does show that systemd files are installed for Ubuntu 15.04. There are fears that systemd may cause problems in the future but, as Mark Shuttleworth notes in his 14.02.14 blog post, it has been agreed that systemd will eventually be adopted for Ubuntu in order to stay in line with Debian, its parent distribution.

The Linux Kernel

As usual, the Linux Kernel gets an incremental upgrade in the new release -- from 3.16 in 14.10 to 3.18. This adds improvements in file systems, in AMD display drivers and in network performance. As with every kernel release, there are some new device drivers and many other small improvements.

Default install applications

The usual point increments of the bundled applications are also present. Ubuntu 15.04 (Vivid Vervet) Beta 1 currently includes version 4.4 of the LibreOffice productivity suite and version 36.0 of the Firefox browser, although the Thunderbird email client remains at 31.4.0. Other applications installed by default include version 3.12 of the Brasero disk burner and version 3.1.0 of the Rhythmbox music manager and player. The Inkscape vector graphics editor version 0.91-3 and GIMP bitmap graphics editor version 2.8.14-1 are available for installation via the Ubuntu Software Centre.

BQ and Meizu Ubuntu phones

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The BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Editon phone. Image: BQ

The most recent Ubuntu development has been flash sales of the first mobile phones running the operating system. Spanish vendor BQ has so far held two flash sales for the BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition, which is only available within the EU and only in black. Both sales sold out of their allocation -- the first, on 11 February within ten minutes.

Canonical's other smartphone partner, the Chinese company Meizu has yet to make any firm announcements about an Ubuntu phone launch. Based in Guangdong province in mainland China, Meizu offers worldwide shipping on at least some of its products, although all of its current offerings on the English-language website are marked as sold out.

Canonical recently published a porting guide for Ubuntu on devices such as unlocked phones that already run Android. Whether Canonical will ever host a collection of installable binaries for various devices, or whether such binaries may be made available elsewhere, remains unclear at the moment. There are problems with access to proprietary device drivers and with related copyright issues.

More news about Ubuntu on phones may emerge during, or following, Mobile World Congress (Barcelona, 2-5 March).

What's next?

According to the Ubuntu 15.04 release schedule, Beta 2 of Ubuntu 15.04 is due on 26 March and the final release on 23 April. Whether the release after that -- 15.10, due in October -- will be the Next release with Unity8 or a placeholder remains to be seen.