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Ubuntu On A Phone: Hands-On Preview

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Everything you wanted to know about Canonical’s upcoming mobile OS

A few weeks ago, Canonical announced that its Ubuntu operating system is going mobile. We were promised a fully-featured Linux experience on a smartphone, with an interface designed for touch interaction and small screen size.

The company threatened to take on iOS and Android with its open source creation, which, among other things, can actually transform into a PC once connected to a monitor and Bluetooth keyboard.

TechWeekEurope visited Canonical’s office in London to play around with the new OS, and find out more about when it will be available to the public.

Mobilising a desktop

Before giving us a tour of the system, Richard Collins, product manager for Ubuntu mobile, said that Canonical will release the full code base to the open source community “very, very soon”. At the moment, it’s still mostly an in-house development, but the main functionality is already in place.

Unity application launcher Ubuntu mobile From the unusual ‘welcome screen’ to its multi-tasking capabilities, Ubuntu on a phone was designed to be different. The OS starts by greeting the user with a fluid, flowery pattern that displays app information, changing in response to the number of missed calls or social network notifications.

The interface doesn’t employ hardware keys, or software keys for that matter, relying instead on innovative swipe controls. For example, to access the familiar (but often criticised) Unity application launcher, the user has to swipe across the phone from the left edge of the screen. To switch between running applications, the same motion is executed from the right edge.

Swiping from the top edge of the screen gives the user instant access to the system settings and services, without the need to exit the currently running application. Finally, swiping from the bottom brings up application-specific settings and features.

Swiping from the edges of the screen has been a much-noted feature of another recent OS, Windows 8. But while it works on a tablet, waving your hand ten inches apart can become somewhat annoying. This control scheme makes much more sense on a small screen.

“We adopted Unity as our own UI framework because we wanted more control over the design and felt that Ubuntu would be relevant for a number of different device types,” explained Collins. Essentially, he says that Canonical’s Marmite-like UI was cross-platform by design.

Back to the system: the home screen is divided into separate panels, each dedicated to a certain function. There’s one for applications (with clear snippets of all running apps), contacts, music, video and messages. And of course, social network integration is everywhere.

Ubuntu does not require top-of–the-line hardware. We saw it running on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, about one year old, selected because the Nexus a platform which is reliable and standardised.

Ubuntu mobile

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Welcome screen
The Ubuntu mobile welcome screen combines a lock screen with a graphical representation of recent activity such as missed calls and notifications

 

The phone version of the OS will support both HTML5 apps written for smartphones in general, as well as the native apps specific to Ubuntu, developed using QML, OpenGL and C++. Essential tools, such as Gallery and Notepad will be native, and provide better performance and advanced features, but it’s the common, slightly less optimised HTML5 apps that will make the OS appealing to the masses.

Both types of apps will be available through the Ubuntu app store. It will be operated by Canonical, but according to Collins, the company will never use it as a tool to control the ecosystem.

“Our target is to have full compatibility for applications across the desktop, smartphone, TV and tablet by version 14.04,” the product manager told us. The current Ubuntu version is 13.04, and since the OS operates a six-month release cycle, we can expect this seamless multi-platform experience in a year.

Canonical’s founder Mark Shuttleworth previously said that mobile Ubuntu will serve two very different purposes at the same time: it will provide better performance on ‘lean’, entry-level smartphones, while at the same time extending and enriching the functionality of ‘superphones’, which will be able to transform into PCs.

Shuttleworth’s vision is a single OS, for any and all devices. It’s certainly a realistic idea, considering the fact that Linux fridges are not even a novelty anymore, and the Linux-running Raspbery Pi is getting the next generation of programmers to love open source.

According to Collins, the first smartphones running Ubuntu will start shipping before the end of this year. Even though Canonical is primarily interested in developing markets, it said it wants to offer the mobile OS in “all major geographies”, including the UK. Since Ubuntu uses the same set of Linux drivers as Android, theoretically, any mobile chip running Google’s OS could easily support its rival. For OEMs, this could lead to political choices.

As for the promising ‘Ubuntu on Android’ project unveiled at the Mobile World Congress last year, we were assured that it is still very much going ahead, and there will be more related news in 2013.

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