updated 03:56 pm EST, Wed January 2, 2013
Popular Linux distro moves to smartphones
As was hinted yesterday, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth announced today the pending release of a new, touch-enabled version of Ubuntu targeted at smartphones. Ubuntu for phones brings its own gesture-driven interface to the smartphone sector, with personalized graphics, integrated search, and support for native and HTML5 apps. Shuttleworth showed off the new operating system in a virtual keynote on YouTube, one in which he sought to position Ubuntu as a way of unifying the user experience across the numerous form factors that define modern computing.
Shuttleworth's virtual keynote began with him noting the growing popularity of Ubuntu, with its most recent release seeing 7.5 million downloads to date. He pointed to Ubuntu builds for traditional computing platforms, as well as Ubuntu for televisions as signs of the platform's increasing versatility.
Moving on to phones, Shuttleworth said that Ubuntu for phone was a distillation of the user interface elements from Ubuntu's computer and television builds. The initial face of the OS is a screen Shuttleworth called not a "lockscreen," but a "welcome screen." The screen -- designed by artists that specialize in data visualization -- displays information about the user's interactions with the phone, as well as other data gathered by the phone: talk time, resting time, distance walked, and so forth.
Shuttleworth says the welcome screen is different from a lock screen in that users can begin directly interacting with the phone and its apps using the system's gesture interface, without having to go through an unlocking process. Swiping in from the left edge shows the most often used apps along the left side of the screen, while swiping in from the right edge takes the user to the most recently used app. These gestures remain the same when the phone is in use, allowing for multitasking. Swiping along the right edge takes a user back through their recently used apps in reverse chronological order, while swiping from the left allows users to more directly choose an app to run.
The home screen in Ubuntu shows recently used applications, contacts, and services. It also contains a search bar that shows results from the phone's storage, the Internet, and available apps. Shuttleworth says that the system will determine for itself what a user is most likely looking for.
The keynote and Ubuntu's launch page for the OS show a range of icons from popular services and apps, including Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Evernote, Spotify, Twitter, Pinterest, and Skype. According to the product page, these currently are HTML5 apps that already exist on Ubuntu's other platforms. Web applications in Ubuntu are "first class citizens," with the ability to generate icons and notifications just like native apps.
Currently, Ubuntu for smartphones comes in two builds: an entry level build and a high-end build for "superphones." The entry-level build requires a 1GHz Cortex A9 processor, 512MB to 1GB of RAM, 4GB to 8GB eMMC flash storage with SD expansion, and multitouch capability. The high-end build requires a quad-core A9 or Intel Atom processor, a minimum of 1GB of RAM, at least 32GB eMMC storage with SD expansion, multitouch capability, and the ability to dock the device to a monitor and keyboard for desktop convergence.
Currently, Ubuntu for smartphones has been shown off running on mid-range Android hardware. Actual devices running the OS are said to be due for some time in 2014.
Ubuntu for smartphones will join an alternative smartphone OS space crowded with upstarts and established systems, all looking to siphon marketshare from Google's Android platform and Apple's iOS. Those two players form a virtual duopoly in the smartphone sector, accounting for more than 90 percent of smartphone install base by some estimates. Struggling to get a foothold or to regain share alongside Ubuntu will be Mozilla's Firefox OS, Nokia spinoff Jolla, and fallen BlackBerry maker Research in Motion with its BlackBerry OS 10. Ubuntu will also be going up against Windows Phone 8, with software giant Microsoft struggling to achieve relevance in the new computing era.