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Here’s the secret success sauce in Ubuntu’s phone platform

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Canonical announced a version of Ubuntu for smartphones on Wednesday, showing of the software on a Galaxy Nexus(s goog) handset. The company is mostly known for its user-friendly Linux desktop operating system: Ubuntu is among the most popular Linux distributions and some hardware makers have sold computers with Ubuntu instead of Microsoft Windows(s msft). Canonical expects actual phones running Ubuntu near the end of 2013 although a build for some smartphones, such as the Nexus, will become available in a few weeks.

Based on press videos I’ve seen so far, Ubuntu on a phone looks as polished as iOS(s aapl) and open as Android(s goog), which could make for an attractive combination. The platform doesn’t require a hardware button for the home screen or task switching. Instead, users swipe from the edge of the phone display for in app navigation, settings and the home screen. Web and native apps will be supported. Here’s a short video demo for a quick look:

As nice as the platform looks so far — and I intend to take a closer, hands-on look at the Consumer Electronics Show next week — the mobile aspect is only part of the equation here. This isn’t just a mobile platform; its a full-blown, desktop version of Ubuntu, according to Canonical. The difference is that instead of a desktop user interface, Ubuntu on the phone has a mobile interface. Why is that important? Because when you dock the phone, the traditional desktop version of Ubuntu appears on a connected monitor. From the press release:

“At the high end of the smartphone market Ubuntu creates an entirely new ‘superphone’ category: a phone that becomes a full PC when docked with a keyboard and monitor. Ubuntu is a popular desktop in security-conscious enterprises and government deployments. It includes thin client software that enables Windows apps to be delivered, securely, from the cloud or the enterprise data centre. That full desktop is included in every high-end Ubuntu phone, and the phone can be managed just like an Ubuntu desktop or server, using standard Ubuntu management tools.”

This approach is different from all others at the moment. Apple has iOS on the phone or iPad and OS X on the desktop. Google leans on Android for mobile and Chrome OS for computers. Microsoft has Windows Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8 across the product lines. Ubuntu on the phone and the desktop from a single computing device offers a unified experience on a single platform ranging from handsets to potential tablets and existing laptops or desktops.

One device for multiple needs — with no need for data synchronization or different app versions — isn’t something we have today. I wouldn’t consider Ubuntu for the smartphone alone to be disruptive, but my opinion changes when Ubuntu becomes a scalable platform across multiple form-factors. The idea of a single computing device that fits in a pocket but can be used in a dockable tablet, notebook or desktop could change the game; something we haven’t seen in the smartphone since the 2007 debut of Apple’s iPhone.

29 Responses to “Here’s the secret success sauce in Ubuntu’s phone platform”

  1. John G.

    Yes, yes, I get the idea of apps scaling to different sizes and different input methods. But, can somebody point me to a really successful desktop-class app that can scale as you people preach, and keep the same level of functionality? The transformation that is required seems to call for an entirely different app. The best that I have seen is simple webpages written in HTML5, which of course is an entirely different animal.

    This “translation engine” has to translate different input methods optimally. I have never seen such a thing…

  2. Solomon

    Anybody heard about the NexPhone? If Ubuntu is available in a similar manner with a single device which can be used as a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, TV wirelessly instead of docking it would really be great. Wish they experimented in countries like India also instead of sticking to only Western Europe.

  3. CowboyTexan

    Hasn’t Google’s new Motorola unit already demonstrated this basic form in its Atrix line ? Google has clearly stated they intend to merge Android with Chrome OS. Will it be unified under the Nexus name ? just thinking & saying .

    • It’s definitely a similar approach, but we haven’t yet seen any merging of Android and Chrome; no detailed plans or schedule of that either. Maybe Ubuntu’s news will speed Google up?

      Motorola’s webtop was a good idea but poorly executed. And it brought complexity because there were actually two “moving parts” to manage: Android on the phone and a custom Linux build on the Lapdock. Sure Android is based on Linux, but I like the Ubuntu approach better: one platform that works for both phones and desktops/laptops.

  4. Joey Mauro

    I’ve been preaching this for a year or more. The future is in your pocket. The future of computing that is. If Microsoft can allow your phone to join active directory and become a full os when docked, maybe in Windows 9? They will rule the world.

  5. John G.

    The idea of a scalable platform is nothing new. Everybody seems to claim these days that they are heading in this direction. What I still fail to understand though is how on earth an app that is designed optimally for tiny screens and fingers is also optimal for large screens and cursors.

    The mobile revolution proved exactly the opposite, namely that different usage scenarios require different GUI paradigms and input methods. The convergence cannot happen there, on the hardware front. It happens already as we speak someplace else, on the data front and it has a name. It’s called “The Cloud”…

  6. Question: Will it allow you to, say, connect a 52″ plasma monitor via bluetooth? Keyboard and mouse? If that happens…paradigm change. You’ll be carrying your computer around with you in your pocket. It will be a game-changer for students.

  7. It could just be a nomenclature thing. They would definitely need to handle gestures differently for these devices (touch, for instance) and hence this would be just be different OS code called with the same name ?

  8. the geek/hacker in me really wants to see this not something sold pre-installed on phones but something to be loaded by he end user just like loading linux on a pc made for windows.

    • Daniel Bo

      I hope it gets pre-installed, but you can bet there’ll be ROMs available. It uses the Android kernel and drivers, so getting up to pre-alpha on a new device pretty much means importing those parts and building.

  9. Partha Biswal

    Just this morning, as I downloaded the Ubuntu font for my Android phone, I wondered why Canonical didn’t bring the awesomely stable and popular OS to phones. In my mind, the phone would kick butts all around. And voila, wishful thinking comes true. This is a gamechanger, indeed!

  10. Hasufel

    On a small side note, the four edges gestures is nothing new. The PlayBook used it very well, even better, with diagonals settings (less prone to user errors while in apps). Best UI ever in my opinion. And so much underestimated.

  11. pjs_boston

    So, let me get this straight, Ubuntu is promising to release a common OS core across various device form factors with an optimized UI for handheld/mobile devices, PC’s, and televisions. Funny, but I seem to recall another company doing this 6 years ago. That company was and still is Apple. After all, iOS is just OS X with all the legacy PC stuff stripped away and with a multi-touch mobile device interface.

    Don’t get me wrong. Ubuntu phone looks like the most polished UI by far of all the iOS wannabes. It blends the best of iOS and Windows Phone into very seamless UI. I wonder if Microsoft will come after them for stealing their WP8 font? Ubuntu phone utterly blows Android out of the water in the looks and fluidity department. On the flip side, unlike Windows Phone it doesn’t force a heavy handed design aesthetic.

    The four edge gestures look very interesting. It remains to be seen how well they will work in practice. If they do, this seems to point to a direction that iOS might take in the future now that Johnny Ive is in charge of UI design. I can’t wait for Apple to respond…

    • No. iOS is not OSX stripped down. They re-did everything. Even the kernel on an iOS device is non-compatible with OSX – there is no chance – whatsoever – of running your native OSX apps on an iOS device. Conversely, Ubuntu Phone OS can.

    • Daniel Bo

      > I wonder if Microsoft will come after them for stealing their WP8 font?
      Ubuntu’s font is self-designed and has been around for years, well before W8.

      This OS’s feel is more like WebOS or Meego than iOS, and it’s certainly not an “iOS wannabe.” When iOS can dock to become OS X, let me know. It’s going to be pretty hard, since practically everything beyond the kernel is completely different (and even the kernel is altered).

      You poured a lot of ignorance into three short paragraphs.

    • Josh Dillard

      Your dead wrong iOS is not osx stripped down see you can’t use Mac osx apps on iPhone are you so blind and far as apple fires back don’t you mean copy you ignorance is bliss

  12. it could be 1mill times more powerful – just to say Kevin, that you endorse Google to go with the same idea for laptops/desktop.
    They have an eco system with more users and bigger appstore size as well as dev around it.
    The idea of chrome OS was silly since it was born if I may say so, and expanding their grip of the computing scene should be through their biggest success. And not its on familiar cousin.
    Chrome is a browser. Android is the OS that people accepted. Its not about how good ChromeOS is – its about doing one thing right.
    Just my 2cp.

  13. Scotland

    I think a more interesting possibility (even if it might be realized on other platforms other than Ubuntu), is the possibility that your phone will automatically “DOCK” when in the proximity of a desktop monitor, mouse and keyboard it has already been paired with via Bluetooth and Miracast. You could place your phone on a Qi pad to charge and your desktop would go with you.

    This would be an even more interesting scenario if wireless charging was possible without having to be on a charging pad – your phone could stay in your pocket (or purse, for the ladies), get charged and you could still use your desktop in docked mode. As soon as you step away or use the screen, the phone would revert to phone mode (or you could have dual screen while in the immediate vicinity).

    Microsoft could do this easily with x86 phones (or later with Arm phones once the modern app catalog grows a bit first). Apple would have to have a dual fat/dual binary version of MacOS X (which they did previously with PowerPC/x86; now they would need for x86/ARM). Google is mainly Arm only for Android. Canonical/Ubuntu seems to be taking a single source code/dual compile option with x86/ARM native apps; though web apps aren’t compiled.

    Interesting times indeed….