I had the good fortune of getting a “Firefox OS Developer Preview” device called “peak” delivered to me the other day. It took nearly a month from purchase to delivery and the overall information sharing by Geeksphone (the creators of peak) was not what I would expect. But I digress. We’re here to talk about the devices, or rather the OS on the devices. There already is an insane amount of videos and specs and whatnot on the interweb but I’d like to do my own writeup of these things, if you don’t mind.
Alongside peak I decided to take a swing at Ubuntu Touch. Considering I already have a plethora of Nexus devices I wanted to choose one of them that wasn’t being used as my daily driver, which made the choice fall on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. There was no real other reasoning behind this other than that I needed my N7 and N4 to stay in the shape they’re currently at but down the line I’ll test Touch out on those as well to see what kind of difference that makes.
To the summit
So, starting off with peak. This device gave me mixed feelings from the first get go when I took it out of its packaging (which is a pretty nice and interesting piece made out of recycled cardboard (I imagine)): It is plasticy, it has a weird “neck” at the top where the camera housing is located (sort of an inverse “neck” that the Galaxy Nexus has) and it has a somewhat iPhone’y look (bottom-middle-placed-home-button-and-nothing-more).
Booting the thing was a blast from the past when I saw the boot logo appear in all it’s 256 colour splendour. Everything after that has at least some 64K colours (probably even 16M but I haven’t verified). Booting was fairly quick, I didn’t have time to think any of it.
Having used a build of Firefox OS on a Samsung Galaxy S, I at least knew how to work with the lock screen. Being so used to swiping left or right or basically any direction from other devices (all the Nexi), double tapping the unlock symbol feels a bit awkward.
The homescreen layout and feel is, too me, more reminiscent of iPhone, apart from the one big clock “widget” (which I’m guessing can’t be switched out by something else in this version) at the top on the first screen.
Swiping to the left brings up two new screens. The first screen being a small set of tools such as camera, fm radio, settings, etc. Another swipe to the left brings up another small set of tools such as calendar, clock, e-mail, etc.
Swiping to the right from the homescreen brings up another iPhone-similar screen, which consists of a search field at the top and a collection of grouped circular app icons divided in categories such as social, weather, sports, etc. Tapping the search field and typing in letters quickfilters a result of apps that you have installed. This, which was a bit disappointing, didn’t search on the Marketplace (which is an app where you can go look for more apps!). That would’ve been a nice to have.
Moving about the screens works fine, however one thing that ticks me off: When I tap an app icon, sometimes the device registers this as a swipe. The first thought that came to my mind was “Oh, ok. So I nudged my finger a bit sideways, I’ll try it aga… hmmm, it happened again. And I swear I didn’t nudge my finger in any direction this time.”. This becomes a bit annoying after a while. I’ll take a look at the code at some point to see if I can Fix-It[tm].
Looking at the apps, I took a dive into the Settings. It looks rather nice with clear icons (I haven’t figured out what the “Internet sharing” icon should look like, though… Some kind of chain links..?) and toggles (which are non-swipable). Tapping a setting, opens up the setting page for that setting…. and with that an almost impossible-to-hit-back-button in the upper left corner! I don’t know why this decision was made, but that’s what you get. I’ll see if I can Fix-That-As-Well[tm] later. I changed a few settings such as volumes and enabled lockscreen unlock sounds. One thing I noticed. THE UNLOCK SOUND IS REALLY LOUD! AND THE PHONE DIALLER SOUND AS WELL! And there’s no way to adjust the volumes for those. One thing that I found to be pleasing in all this cacophony of noise is that the external speaker really packs quite a punch.
Taking a look at the Browser, to me one of the integral parts of Firefox OS, it feels ok. Address bar at the top, alongside a sidebar-opener-button on the right hand side. At the bottom there appears a number of context sensitive navigation buttons. The browsing experience is ok, pages load fairly quick (running traffic over 3G) but, and this I don’t know why: More or less half of the times I would get greeted with a “Problem loading page” message. When this occured, each time I tried accessing a page, I could see the data traffic notifier icon animate a couple of times and then disappear as if nothing worked. I had to reboot the device whenever this happened. The Marketplace app was giving me a tough time. Half of the times nothing happened when I tapped the app buttons on the front page (featured apps I guess) after it had loaded, the other half of the times when I could tap (for instance) a category, nothing happened when I tapped an app button within the category, and lastly the third half of the times the data connection actually broke when navigating in the Marketplace so I had to reboot. All in all, a pretty horrible experience and I didn’t get to install any apps! Testing the HERE Maps app was interesting. It worked quite well, tiles loaded as they should, it found my GPS based location, I couldn’t figure out how to turn GPS off (or at least I couldn’t make the notification icon disappear. It changed color from white to gray, but never disappeared no matter what I did to settings or running apps). Also, the HERE Maps UI is really created for another screen density. Even tinier buttons than the back button in the settings mentioned earlier.
Ok, the experience so far has been rough. I do however understand that there is a reason it says “Developer Preview” all over this thing (well, it’s only stated at the back actually. But it’s clearly visible. No beating around the bush.). Over time when the software gets more mature, the device will follow along with it (here’s hoping that intermittent data connection drops requiring reboots will be a thing of the past (I’ll-See-If-I-Can-Get-Around-To-Fix-That-As-Well[tm])).
What I do sincerely like is the fact that this is supposed to be a truly Internet-centered OS and I absolutely believe that. What will be interesting is to see whether the populace of smartphone users and all the devs are ready, willing and mature to embrace it in order to make it _really_ usable. I’ll certainly try and be all of those and keep monitoring the situation while I spend my time adapting my web services to it.
Well, not really. Ubuntu Touch doesn’t really have that familiar naming that is connected to Ubuntu releases. I’m sure it will in the future though.
Getting a hold of a build and flashing this was a whole lot easier than I thought. One light pound of Galaxy Nexus, one ounce of Lubuntu, three pinches of apt-get and a hint of command lining and the thing was baked and ready to eat! No manual flashing of binaries in the correct order and right versions, it just worked[tm].
Booting up Ubuntu caught my interest in the fact that the only thing telling you that you are actually booting anything is the usual short vibration when pressing the power button and the Google logo… then everything goes black… and then you’re in Ubuntu Touch! For those of you who are used to later versions of Ubuntu, you will recognize the orange-purple colour scheme. Which I totally dig.
It’s really nice to rest your eyes on and the homelockscreen (in lack of a better word) is nice to look at. It displays a status bar with a bunch of icons, a digital clock at the top, a circular clock like widget with the text “14 tweets received” printed in it and a small marker working as a visual queue for the 14 tweets that “I” have received. Ok, that’s all nice but the question is though, how do I “unlock” this so I can start poking around? Tapping the “14 tweets received widget”? Pulling down the status bar? Swiping the “14 tweets received” widget?…. Apparently not. Ok, so let’s swipe and tap pretty much everywh… AHA! Swiping left from the rightmost edge was the trick! Nothing like a small moment of frustration on the first trial of a new OS.
So, now I’m at the Home screen (which is aptly named just that). It consists of a few Frequent apps such as Camera (that works), Phone (which doesn’t work), Browser, etc. Further down there is an area called Favourite People with a few happy people displayed on “cards”. Scrolling down we find People Recently in Touch, which I guess is who “I” contacted lately. Even further down we find Recent Music. Going down, here is Videos Popular Online. Scrolling a bit fu… No, wait. It stops there.
Naturally, as a smartphone user, I start swiping to the right and left and find a few more screens. The first swipe to the left reveals Apps (and also a bottom bar which pans in from the bottom of the screen, displaying which screen I’m at, represented by an icon), which displays a collection of Running apps. Below that is the previously mentioned Frequently used collection of apps and below that we find Installed and at last a collection called Available for Download. Swiping left yet again here is a Videos screen. At the top: Featured, below that: Recent, further down: New Releases, scrolling more: Popular Online. This is the end of the screens in this direction. Swiping right from Home reveals a People screen. This is in all essentiality “my” address book on a scrollable screen. Yet another swipe to the right displays Music. The content is laid out in much the same way as Videos so I won’t go through it once more. (After all, you have read 1774 words so far, and that’s not a small amount).
Swiping the status bar was really awkward. I of course, being that naive, expected an Android kind of information curtain display. And it actually is pretty Android’y, but with the big difference that it’s aware of what status icon you swiped over and displays contents based on that. So swiping the finger down over the blue letter, I get the messages that I’ve been missing out. Swiping over the speaker icon displays audio settings. Nice touch (pun intended?)!
*Swipe* *swipe* *swipe*
So a bit of swiping later I’ve realised two things: 1: It’s really hard to do repeatable swipes and access what you would expect. 2: See 1. The reason for this is that more or less everything is swipeable and yields different results. More often than not I would actually start to swipe a bit too far to the right or left of the screen which would not switch between the home screens (or any other paged view) but instead either 1: bring up the quicklaunch sidebar for a brief half a second and then bring me back to one of the home screens or 2: switch between already running apps. These are neat features but they’re in the current state of things more a nuisance than of assistance.
Oh, another thing. I found a sort of Google Now equivalent. When in an app, you can swipe upwards which reveals a semi-transparent icon with a looking glass. Releasing the finger over it brings up a field (and a few buttons) that says “Type or say a command”. I tried to type “message” but it didn’t do anything.
While poking around the different apps I found another hidden gem, so to speak. Opening the Phone app gives you pretty much what you would expect: somewhere to tap in a number and then a button to place the call. However, looking at the top of the app there is something that tells the tale of more under the surface. The title of the app is “Call >” and I just tested out tapping the text and what do you know, there are more options revealed! So in the Phone app you will now have the different scrollable “tabs” Call, Conversations and Contacts. When you have selected a tab, the other options will fade into the background and reappear if you swipe or tap the title again. Neat! There are a couple of more apps bundled in this software, however, either they require signing in or they aren’t functional and just work as placeholders.
Remember when I mentioned the first trial of a new OS. When I say that this is an OS, you may believe that this is something that can be used, perhaps not as a daily driver but at least to some extent for mail and some basic messaging, maybe some music entertainment. But you know what, I wouldn’t recommend it. This is, in my opinion, something that you are going to use as a way of trying to understand what the Ubuntu creators are up to in the mobile scene. One of the very telling tales of this is that there is a pre-installed, pre-populated account. There are a whole bunch of fake friends, fake messages, fake videos, fake music, and so on. I have found no way of switching users. I was able to create a user (with a bit of adb and ssh keyboarding) but nowhere did I find a Log out or Switch account-button.
Also, the screen won’t turn off automatically. Ok, so this isn’t really a usability thing but it’s still one of those things that are pretty vital if you don’t want a dead weight in your pocket because you accidently hit the power button.
Ok, so where does this leave us? Well, these OSes don’t really have a lot in common other than being run on mobile devices and having Android as their common denominator. Firefox OS is focusing in on a lightweight system which primarily make use of different kinds of web technologies to make itself usable. And seeing the explosive nature of Internet services and availability, I’m pretty confident that this will find its place. Especially considering that adaptation of an already existing web service should prove not to be too high of an effort.
Ubuntu Touch is instead going in the direction of becoming your ubiquitous-carry-around-mini-format-computer OS. This in itself opens up another set of possibilities (I would love to see the day when I can have a docking station at home and at work that are hooked up to a screen, keyboard and mouse and the UI seamlessly switches between desktop and mobile depending on whether the device is in the dock or not) but also challenges in the shape of app making.
Ok, so this was my take on Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch at this point in time. For those of you interested in more developie or tekkie reading material, you’ll have to wait a while longer until I’ve started to get around to keyboarding out a few samples. These thing take time, mind you. Why not do a little bit of searching on the Interwebs while you wait?