If you visited the Ubuntu home page early this morning, you couldn’t have missed the countdown timer that promised something, “So close, you can almost touch it.” Most assumed it to be about a fully touch-optimized UI for the next version of the popular Linux distribution, but it turned out to be something even more significant. In an announcement earlier today, Canonical unveiled Ubuntu for phones, a fully working Ubuntu distribution meant for existing and future mobile handsets.
If you are thinking “Wait, wasn’t Ubuntu for Android already announced last year,” you aren’t alone. Upon first hearing the news, that was the first thing that came to my mind as well. However, this is a whole different project with a much more ambitious aim and broader scope. While Ubuntu for Android was built to run in tandem with Google’s mobile OS to offer a full Ubuntu desktop experience only when docked, Ubuntu for phones is a complete OS in and of itself, entirely independent of Android. Before we get into the details, check out a hands-on video courtesy of The Verge. You will notice significant amounts of lag, but don’t be alarmed because this could be due to this being a development build that is not yet ready for release.
Here’s another, much more detailed 22 minute video featuring the founder of Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth himself, presenting Ubuntu for phones:
An announcement like this one is bound to receive mixed reactions. The Linux and Ubuntu enthusiasts among you must be rejoicing at the idea of getting an official and fully native Ubuntu experience that’s tailored for the small screen, rather than being a mere port of the desktop OS. At the same time, the skeptics must be wondering why on earth Canonical decided to release yet another mobile OS. With Android and iOS dominating the mobile ecosystem, the chances of a new smartphone platform thriving don’t seem too bright. After all, we’ve seen the lack of commercial success in Windows Phone, which despite Microsoft’s efforts over the past couple of years, has yet to grab significant smartphone market share. Though before we jump to conclusions, let’s give Ubuntu for phone a fair chance to at least present itself. So enough talk, let’s take a look at what Canonical has to offer the smartphone world.
The User Interface
From the details provided by Canonical and what can be seen in The Verge’s hands-on video, the OS clearly derives significant inspiration from the excellent but ill-fated Nokia N9. There are no on-screen or on-device buttons (it is running on a Galaxy Nexus, after all); and the OS is entirely gesture-driven. Edge-initiated swipes can be a great way to launch and navigate between apps, as we have already seen in case of the N9, and Ubuntu for phone makes full use of these gestures. Here’s how the UI works:
Instead of a lock screen, you wake the device to a welcome screen that shows you a stunning visualization of useful information such as the number of messages and tweets waiting for you, the distance you have walked, the time you have talked on the phone, and much more. All this information evolves as you keep on using your device.
Instead of providing you with app icons, tiles or widgets, the home screen shows you your most frequently used content including most used apps, most contacted people, and most played media.
A short swipe from the left edge brings up a bar of apps while a long swipe shows you all the currently running apps. Being accessible from anywhere across the OS, these gestures make app launching and switching super-fast.
Similarly, swiping from the right edge switches to the previously used app. This works in chronological order for all the apps you use, making app switching a breeze.
Swiping downwards from the top bar performs different actions depending on the icon in the notification bar you swipe down from. For instance, swiping down on the speaker icon brings up the volume controls, while doing the same on the message icon shows you all your messages, also allowing you to reply to them instantly from right there., rather than having to tap a notification and launch the app. This works not only for messages but also for tweets, email, Facebook interactions and phone calls.
As mentioned above, there are no system-wide controls other than gestures, hence there are no universal buttons. However, swiping up from the bottom edge reveals the control bar for in-app actions whenever required.
Global search feature will let you quickly access apps as well as content relevant to the current context from anywhere in the OS as well as online results.
Similarly, there will be fully integrated voice as well as text command support at both system and app level.
Based on the above, the user experience offered by the UI itself seems outstandingly intuitive. It was a pity to see this excellent gesture-driven interface not make it to the masses in form of the N9 due to Nokia’s decision to ditch the platform, and we hope things fare better for Ubuntu.
Smartphones of today have become powerful enough to be useful as our daily use PCs, but their size and form factor makes them unsuitable for getting serious work done. We have previously seen several attempts to do this by the likes of ASUS and Motorola, some of which have been successful in their niche, while others have faded into obscurity. One issue that keeps manufacturers from converging several devices into one is obviously commercial interest. It doesn’t seem to be a smart business choice to sell a phone that does it all for most users, when you can sell the same user a phone, a tablet, and a laptop or desktop PC. Nevertheless, with ~2 GHz quad-core processors, multi-core GPUs, 720p & 1080p HD displays, 32/64GB internal storage, and 2 GB RAM becoming the norm, this convergence is bound to happen sooner or later. While the likes of hardcore gamers, graphic designers and video editors will still buy PCs, these powerful phones have already adequate power for the average user who primarily only needs to play casual games, edit some documents, watch videos, listen to music, and browse the Internet.
With Ubuntu for Android, Canonical had aimed to converge our devices into one, offering a full desktop computer experience right from our phones when docked with a display, keyboard, and mouse. The same docking support is also there in Ubuntu for phones. Canonical aims to offer the OS on both mid-range and high-end devices, and the latter will be able to offer a full PC experience, allowing you to use your phone as your primary computer that you can carry around wherever you go. Being optimistic, we can even start expecting laptop and tablet terminals that only offer the screen, I/O devices, a few extra ports, and high-capacity batteries. These will then use our phones for the computation work itself, just like the ASUS Padfone.
From what we have seen above, things definitely look great for Ubuntu. Though the UI or docking support alone can’t offer a great experience, which brings us to the ecosystem.
The App Ecosystem
Ubuntu for phones will ship with all the core apps you would expect from any mobile OS such as phone dialler, SMS & MMS, web browser, email client, camera, photo gallery, music & video player, calculator, alarm clock, and so on. Furthermore, all popular HTML5-based web apps will be readily available for the platform, and will work side-by-side with native apps, complete with their own icons and access to the notification system.
Apart from the web apps, the platform will also enjoy fully native third-party apps. And unlike Android, there will be no Dalvik virtual machine, which will force these apps to be written in native code. If you are a developer, this will be your primary interest, so let’s take a look at what the platform has to offer the developer community.
We have seen on multiple occasions (webOS and BlackBerry) how developer interest can truly make or break a platform. With almost every modern smartphone out there offering the hardware specs and every smartphone OS offering all the core features required from such devices, the number and quality of apps available for the platform is truly the deciding factor for many users when purchasing their next phone or tablet. This may be a little too early to say right nowm but in case of Ubuntu for phone, the future doesn’t look dark in this regard—even if not too bright just yet.
Canonical made the excellent choice to make Ubuntu for phones not a separate OS from its desktop variant, but rather the very same OS, merely with a different UI. This means apps written for Ubuntu PCs will run on Ubuntu phones and vice versa, with only minimal changes required in the code to support the different form factor and instruction set. The already established Ubuntu Software Center will also cater to phones as the application discovery, distribution, and installation platform. Ubuntu One is also integrated into the OS as the cloud storage medium offering plenty of free space, with optional paid upgrades for those who need them.
What Lies Ahead?
While only time will tell whether Ubuntu for phones stands against its major competitors in an already saturated market, or ends up suffering the same fate as webOS or Meego, the concept as well as the product itself are both promising. What we do see right now is a well-built OS, a promising app ecosystem, and the much-needed convergence between platforms. Combined together, these are all ingredients for success in this industry. That said, how things actually turn out will also heavily depend upon manufacturer support, as well as the marketing strategy adopted by both Canonical and device manufacturers.
While you can’t try out the OS at the moment, Canonical has promised to make Ubuntu for phone available for several existing devices within this year, starting with the Galaxy Nexus. CES 2013 is just under a week away, and more details will be revealed at that time. Furthermore, you’ll be able to grab the binaries of the OS for your Galaxy Nexus within the next couple of weeks. However, devices with Ubuntu pre-installed aren’t expected to start shipping before 2014.
So what do you think of this newest combatant in the smartphone arena? Join the discussion and let us know in the comments below.