Canonical announced another entrant into the
mobile phone space on January 2: Ubuntu for phones. In some
ways it is similar to Ubuntu for Android,
which was announced last February, but there are some substantial
differences as well. To the confusion of some, Ubuntu for Android is not
going away after this announcement—in fact we may see that ship on
before Ubuntu for phones hits store shelves. After nearly a year with no
shipping hardware, though, some are skeptical, but Canonical and founder Mark
Shuttleworth expressed confidence that we will be seeing some form of Ubuntu on mobile
phones before the year is out. With luck, long before the year is out.
Essentially, Ubuntu for phones is exactly what it sounds like: the "full"
Ubuntu distribution running on phone hardware. But it is clearly more than
that as well. The user interface is radically different, both from desktop
Ubuntu (Unity or any of the other choices) and from other mobile operating
systems. But, phone Ubuntu has adopted one of the more interesting parts
of Ubuntu for Android: the ability for suitably beefy hardware to be
connected to a display and keyboard/mouse via a dock, allowing for
In fact, the somewhat hype-filled video that accompanies the announcement
(perhaps the fact that Shuttleworth
calls it a "virtual keynote" should have been a clue) talks about
convergence between mobile phone, tablet, desktop, TV, cloud, and
"personal supercomputer" all using Ubuntu. It's clear that Canonical has a sweeping
vision of where it—and Ubuntu—are headed.
Six minutes or so into the video, Shuttleworth introduces Ubuntu for
phones, using what appears to be a Galaxy Nexus. Technical details of
things like the software underlying the user interface are scant, but one
suspects it is the
Ubuntu user space running atop an Android-derived kernel.
Shuttleworth gives a tour of the interface, starting with the "welcome
screen" (as opposed to a lock screen—something that has been attacked
notorious patent) that dynamically updates various activities (such as
"tweets" received, kilometers walked, talk time used, etc.) as well as the
underlying artwork. Each of the
four edges of the screen has a specific purpose, providing direct access
from the welcome screen. For example, the left edge holds a handful of
favorite apps that can be launched directly. Security would seem to be a
concern here (as lock screens are often used to restrict phone access), but
Shuttleworth indicated that it was "secure" without providing any details.
That lack of details is, of course, a bit irritating to some. It is not
clear, for example, how much of all of this is "demo-ware" and how much is
real. But the video is not directly targeted at LWN editors (or regular
much as at the hardware manufacturers and app developers. That makes
perfect sense. Before we
can get Ubuntu phones in our hands, Canonical needs to find hardware partners. Any
of the pieces that are partly mocked-up for the Consumer Electronics Show starting
January 7 will presumably be finished by the time we see phones.
The edge-based interface is touted as making it easier to perform the
various tasks one might want to do with their phone, without having to
constantly return to the home screen. That certainly looks like a
compelling feature, given that it is one of the pain points for other phone
The top edge allows searching from any screen, for example; as befits a
mobile device, that searching is done on the internet. Unsurprisingly, it
will also search for "products" of various sorts, not just web pages.
While some users have been unhappy with the addition of Amazon searching to
the Unity "Dash" on the desktop, one could argue that it makes more sense
on a device like a phone where content consumption is one of the primary
activities—at least for some.
There are also a number of global gestures that will immediately take you
to various screens or previously used apps. Overall, it looks like a
well-thought-out interface that avoids some of the pitfalls of its
competitors. It clearly targets making the most use of the entire screen
by, for example, allowing the top-edge status bar to be hidden and to put
the app controls "below" the bottom of the screen.
Beyond that, there's an app store (of course), but it is integrated with
the app screen (which shows the installed apps), rather than by running a separate
program (e.g. Google Play). The Ubuntu One "cloud" is
integrated as well, so that settings, photos, and other content are all
backed up. Integration of shared contact lists and other similar data with
desktop applications is at the very least implied.
A phone ecosystem suffers from something of a chicken-and-egg problem, in
that hardware devices are needed to generate interest from users and,
importantly, app developers. But without an ecosystem of apps, it may be
difficult to get hardware manufacturers interested. Canonical appears to
be taking two approaches to solving that problem. It is clearly targeting
manufacturers who already have Android-ready hardware in the pipeline (so
little if any hardware customization will be needed), and it is pitching an
Ubuntu-wide development story for apps.
For all Ubuntu devices, both HTML 5 and native applications are
supported, with web applications being promoted to an equal footing with
their native counterparts, according to Shuttleworth. For native
for the user interface. There is also access to native OpenGL for graphics
intensive apps, such as games, which are clearly important to Canonical.
Games are one of the areas where Linux lags on the desktop, and are fairly
critical to any mobile phone platform, so it is not a surprise that the
company is particularly interested.
There were also a few interesting tidbits that were mentioned in the "keynote"
Ubuntu is shipping on "10% of the world's new branded PCs",
which is a rather eye-opening number. In addition, Shuttleworth noted that
Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, and, now, HP, are all shipping systems with Ubuntu
pre-installed. He said that 70% of the systems offered by those companies
are now Ubuntu certified. One of the biggest problem areas for
desktop adoption has been finding systems that come with Linux installed, so
those numbers would seem to bode well for the future.
One can only wish Canonical well with this new venture. The skeptical may
point to the lack of progress on Ubuntu for Android devices, but that could
soon change. Ubuntu for phones seems like a more coherent story overall,
but it's too early to tell. From a free software perspective, there is the
question of whether the user interface code (and any other underlying
Canonical-owned pieces) will be released. So far, that is unclear, but
Canonical has generally been a stalwart ally of free software along the
luck we'll see the code along with a phone or three in the coming year.
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