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

Ubuntu smartphone Galaxy Nexus

Canonical announced a version of Ubuntu for smartphones on Wednesday, showing of the software on a Galaxy Nexus 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. 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 and open as Android, 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:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/yCa-6mZ6dT0]

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.

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