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Why Scopes, Not Apps, Are Ubuntu Phone’s Secret Weapon


The Bq Ubuntu Phone goes on sale very soon

It’s hard to believe that in just a few short weeks the first Ubuntu Phone goes on sale, manufactured by Bq Readers. It feels like it’s taken ages to get to this point, but at the same time no time at all.

In the build up to the consumer launch, and informal pre-launch event taking place shortly before it on Feb 6, I’ll be highlighting some of my favourite features of the phone and the mobile operating system that runs on it.

And the first item to tackle is the one intrinsic to the OS: Scopes.

Scopes on Ubuntu Phone work very differently to their desktop counterparts. They are still little search engines, returning information and content based on whatever sources it is plugged into, but they look, feel and work far more efficiently.

As they are the “home screen” at the heart of the Ubuntu Phone experience you may be wondering what makes them so special.  To answer that we need to zoom out.

Realising The Status Quo

Mobile crowned its victors, Android and iOS, years ago. Only the most fervent of fanboys would underestimate the uphill struggle faced by Ubuntu in trying to win hearts, minds and marketshare of consumers deeply loyal to the reigning, and throughly dominant, duopoly. 

Yet it can be done. Factor this: most of us are contradictory. We hate change but love innovation, dislike relearning old habits, but love going hands on with new features.

‘Smartphones are so samey because of us.’

For mobile makers trying to court consumers it is this innate consumer desire for “the same, but better” that leads to a balancing act of priorities that ends up going nowhere — they fear falling if things are rocked too much, but know that without doing so they can’t gain momentum to move forward.

Our innate laziness and inability to adapt to change is why so many of the minor mobile OSes, from Firefox OS to Tizen, are all so samey.

Each one of them has the same championing call: “We have apps! And a store! You can use me like your old phone! I can run Android apps! Please buy me!!”.  

And despite the innovation we do see, be it bigger screens, faster graphics or unified hardware/software cameras, the core mobile experience remains stable, no matter the handset: ppen the ‘app grid’, poke an icon and play with the content inside it. Go back, poke another app icon and play with something different.

‘It’s in Ubuntu’s DNA to take the status quo and improve it’

Ubuntu knows it is rocking up late to a party well underway, but rather than clutching a bottle of lukewarm Vimto and wearing the hosts’ clothes, it’s not trying to keep things familiar. It’s not in the DNA of the project. It prefers to look at the status quo, see what needs to be improved, and deliver it as best it can.

Canonical thinks a richer user experience is needed on mobile, an experience that goes beyond rehashing the worn “apps grid” concept we all know of. Ubuntu Phone wants to offer the first truly “mobile first” user experience, with information immediacy and gesture efficiency at the core.

And so, Scopes (or as I like to call them, Ubuntu Phone’s secret weapon).

Scopes Move Us Beyond Apps


Branded Scopes — better than apps

We’ve all probably read that the biggest challenge supposedly facing Ubuntu Phone, Tizen and all the other mobile newcomers is a lack of apps, heard a chicken-and-egg analogy about how new platforms need apps to attract users, but need users to attract developers…

‘The data matters more than the app silo it sits in, right?’

If Ubuntu was an app-centric platform I’d be inclined to agree. If, like Tizen and Firefox OS, it was reusing the same design paradigm, I’d also agree that apps were vital.

But the key question a new mobile OS needs to ask is not “do I have apps?” it’s “do apps offer the best experience?”. Canonical’s designers say no.

Mobile devices are our primary way of getting essential information, e.g., bus times, movie reviews, Facebook statues, quickly. The data matters more than the box it sits in, right?

One could install and launch three separate apps to check the weather, find a restaurant and view a friend’s Instagram photos. That works. Ubuntu Phone evolves the behaviour to its natural endpoint. With a Scope you can see all three items right there, on the screen, at your fingertips, ready to go.

To use a clunky analogy to illustrate the point:

  • Apps are like books on a shelf. You take one down, find what you need, put it back. Repeat when needed.
  • Scopes are the relevant pages from those books pinned to your noticeboard right when you need them.

Better for Developers

From the local weather forecast to finding new shoes on eBay, Scopes can present pretty much anything in a unified, visually immersive way regardless of content type or source.

Better yet, they’re easy to build. That lowers the barrier for content providers and developers already overstretched maintaining separate apps on iOS and Android.

Freeing information from the confines of individual icons ordered neatly in a grid won’t suit everyone. But by removing a layer of interaction, Scopes offer a far more interactive and rewarding experience — no apps needed!

Two distinct types of Scopes currently exist on Ubuntu Phone, both of which can be installed, configured, tweaks and customised as needed.

  • ‘Aggregator’ — Combines multiple content sources in one view (e.g., ‘NearBy’, ‘Today’, ‘Music’);
  • ‘Branded’ — Content and brand specific views (e.g., ‘Soundcloud’, ‘Instagram’).

Traditional apps still have a role to play in the Ubuntu Phone story, as we’ll touch on in future posts. But they’re no longer essential. Scopes are the key differentiator for Ubuntu in the mobile space, a game changer even.

Let’s not overlook the significance of what will soon be in front of many of us.