BQ announces second Ubuntu phone and plans to build PC-smartphone combo

The Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition will cost $220 when it starts shipping in Europe later this month

Against the odds, Canonical and Spanish company BQ are continuing to push Ubuntu for smartphones over Android and iOS. BQ's second Ubuntu phone is a step up from its inaugural effort, and the two companies are also working on a smartphone that's also a PC.

Earlier this year, BQ started selling the Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition and will later this month start shipping the Aquaris E5 HD in Europe from its online store for €200 (US$220).

The struggles of Samsung's Tizen, Mozilla's Firefox OS and Microsoft's Windows Phone have shown how difficult it's to compete with the dominant smartphone platforms of Apple and Google, but that doesn't seem to scare Canonical and BQ.

Canonical's original plan to differentiate its offering from the competition was to sell devices that would work both as a smartphone and a PC. Working with BQ, the company is now planning to make that a reality. The goal is to release a product in October, but it's still too early to offer any guarantees, according to Cristian Parrino, vice president of Mobile and Online Services at Canonical.

Parrino wasn't ready to reveal hardware details, but said the device will be a high-end product based on the most recently available components. Modern smartphone processors are certainly powerful enough to run most desktop apps. The challenge will be to convince consumers and enterprise users that desktop-type apps are something they need on smartphones. Developers will also have to be persuaded to create the apps. Canonical and BQ aren't alone in developing this new device type: Microsoft's Continuum for Phones will later this year allow users to connect their Windows 10 phones to a keyboard, mouse and a larger screen.

For now, there are only regular Ubuntu smartphones. To keep costs down, BQ has once again recycled an existing Android smartphone, hence the Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition product name.

The Aquaris E5 HD is better than the existing E4.5 (which costs €170) in most regards. It has a 5-inch HD screen instead of a 4.5-inch, 540 x 960 pixel screen, and the integrated storage has been increased to 16GB from 8GB. The E5 HD also has a 13-megapixel rear camera, which should be an improvement over the E4.5's 8-megapixel main camera.

Unfortunately, the E5 HD doesn't have LTE and is powered by a modest quad-core 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 processor from MediaTek. The Cortex-A7 should be used to power sub-$100 entry-level smartphones, according to ARM, which designed the processor. That will make difficult for the smartphone to compete with similarly priced Android-based products.

However, the main reason to buy the E5 HD is Canonical's OS.

The Ubuntu smartphone user interface is made up of what Canonical calls scopes, which are home screens that aggregate information related to a topic. They include News, Music, Nearby and Today screens. The latter two list information related to the user's location and personalized information, such as favorite contacts. Even though the scopes are the main building blocks, the OS also has traditional apps, and can run both native and web apps. There are currently about 1,500 scopes and apps.

Canonical is currently working on making scopes the viable alternative to apps that they were meant to be. Updates set to arrive in the next few months will make them more interactive, letting users watch videos and listen to music within a scope, instead of having to switch to a browser, according to Parrino.

The launch of the Aquaris E5 HD Ubuntu Edition is a step in the right direction for Canonical's nascent OS. However, finding room in the shadow of Android and iOS has proved difficult for all that have tried. BQ said it considers the Aquaris E4.5 to be a success, but doesn't say how many it has sold.

Its share of the smartphone market is tiny, though: Market analyst Gartner doesn't count sales of Ubuntu phones separately, but lumps it in with other minority operating systems such as Samsung's Tizen and Mozilla's Firefox OS. Behind Android, iOS, Windows and BlackBerry, the "others" category had a 0.4 percent share of the smartphone market during the first quarter of the year, for combined sales of about 1.3 million phones, according to Gartner.

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