Thursday, November 27, 2014

Writing applications for Ubuntu Phone

I've just released my fifth application for the Ubuntu phone and I thought I'd do a write up of my experiences developing for Ubuntu Phone. In summary, it's been pretty positive!

The good:
  • Installing the SDK is as easy as installing any application in Ubuntu.
  • Writing applications is fast. You can throw together something fairly nice in a few hours.
  • Click packages are so easy to build! It makes .deb packages feel like something from the 1990s. Which is appropriate, because they are from the 1990s.
  • The deployment process is incredibly fast. You create a click package from the SDK, upload it to the store in a web form and it lands on my (or anyone else's) phone in under a minute normally. A freaking minute! That's amazing!
The bad / ugly:
  • The Ubuntu SDK (aka Qt Creator) still reinforces why I don't like IDEs. While it's better than older IDEs it's still overly complicated and cluttered with buttons. I only use it to dogfood the process and the command line tools aren't great for building and deploying applications (yet).
  • QML is... OK. It has all the technology of a modern toolkit (e.g. transitions, it's declarative, you can develop using a dynamic language) which is good. But it feels like it was put together in a rush. It's often not clear what the best way is to solve a problem and some components seem to be missing useful functionality (e.g. containers).
  • Javascript is great for small applications but quickly becomes unwieldy for large ones. The default other option is to use C++ which is just an enormous step backwards into complexity. I haven't yet tried Go QML but hopefully that will be a better combination.
  • The Ubuntu store interface is very basic. There's no way to list apps by ranking, you can't see new applications, there's no web interface. I'm sure it will get better soon but it's currently hard to find what's available (which is a big part of why I'm writing this blog post).
Here's what I've made; all these applications are released under the GPL 3 license and available on Launchpad. You can get the source for any of them by typing "bzr branch lp:euchre" from an Ubuntu machine.


My first Ubuntu phone application. It's a classic four player trick taking card game with a basic AI.  I learnt a lot about animation in QML developing this. It's all written in Javascript which is really pushing the limits of maintainability for an application like this (1833 lines of QML). While it is the oldest it is also the least downloaded of my applications I think because Euchre is a bit of a niche game and I don't have any in game help.

Animal Farm

The inspiration for this was my daughter enjoying applications like this on Android. You touch the animals and they shake and meow / baa etc. It's trivially small (157 lines of QML).


Dotty is a clone of the very successful iOS / Android game Dots. I thought I'd see if copying a popular game would transfer into success in Ubuntu and it has. This is my most popular game with 362 users currently compared to 160 for Animal Farm which is the next most popular. I learnt how to do dynamic components (i.e. the lines and the dots falling down) with this. A good size at 605 lines of QML.

Five Letters

Like Dotty I was looking for the type of games that are already popular on existing platforms. Word games are quite successful and I was thinking of games like 7 little words when designing this. The "making words from five letters" is a common newspaper game. I spent a lot of time trimming the dictionary of possible games to remove anything offensive or obscure so it should be reasonably possible to solve all the puzzles (there's about 1300 of them). 406 lines of QML.


My newest game! Released last night. Like Animal Farm I was thinking of something my children might like to play. You turn over the cards two at a time and try and find the matching colours. The colours I've used actually make it quite difficult and fun to play as an adult. 409 lines of QML.