Ubuntu jumps into the smartphone operating system game, promises first devices next year

The latest entrant into the smartphone operating system space has been announced today – it’s Ubuntu. The most widely used Linux desktop distribution is coming to a smartphone near you.

This, of course, is hardly unexpected, because every company that has a desktop presence is trying its hand at mobile stuff too, since that particular market is booming and will probably show no signs of stopping for a long time.

Ubuntu for phones comes with many new user experience ideas compared to the current crop of smartphone OSes, however in terms of user interface (UI) it’s perhaps less of a departure than Windows Phone (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

It’s surprising actually to notice how similar Ubuntu for phones is to its desktop counterpart. The grid of apps from iOS and Android is replaced with a Dash-style expandable list, for example.

Ubuntu for phones

The key UX point in Ubuntu for phones is that swiping from each side performs an action. Swiping a little from the left brings up a Unity-looking row of icons of your ‘favorite’ apps, which you can access most easily. A full swipe from the left brings you to the Apps page, which, like on Ubuntu desktop, lists not only installed apps, but also has app suggestions for you. Swiping from the right is Ubuntu’s Back button, essentially, taking you back to whatever you were doing before (or whichever app you were using).

Swiping from the top gives you both a notifications/messages drawer (with immediate full access to all messages and quick reply too), as well as a way to quickly alter certain settings.

Finally, swiping from the bottom up brings up each app’s own menu, which is normally hidden when an app starts. This is all meant to give you as much screen real estate as possible for what you’re actually doing at any given time, and not waste it with ‘pointless’ things such as navigation buttons or menu-like controls. Again, although the implementation is different (as it should be, given the form factor), this closely resembles the Ubuntu philosophy on the desktop.

Here’s a trailer video for Ubuntu for phones:

And here’s the full keynote-like presentation by Mark Shuttleworth, the head honcho at Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu):

After watching the videos above, it becomes pretty clear that most of the ideas that Canonical has about Ubuntu for phones are quite interesting, and aren’t different (from the competition) just for the sake of being different (which is what Windows Phone feels like sometimes).

However, this is a new mobile platform, and to be successful it will need to gain traction. With phone makers, with carriers / operators worldwide, and, perhaps most importantly, with app developers. There’s the neat detail that HTML5 apps are essentially ‘first class citizens’ on Ubuntu for phones, having access to notifications and such (once more, just like on the desktop version), but native apps obviously should perform better as they’re able to directly access all of the hardware power. So it remains to be seen how many developers will be willing to go to the trouble of making Ubuntu mobile apps. The trouble, by the way, doesn’t seem to be quite a lot – especially porting from Android, Canonical promises.

It will also apparently be pretty simple for phone makers currently working on Android devices to switch to Ubuntu or add it as an option in their portfolios. This fact alone could entice some companies to at least give Ubuntu for phones a try.

But it’s all unclear right now. The first new phones running this new OS should be on the market sometime next year. Let’s hope we won’t have completely forgotten about Ubuntu for phones until then.

Last year during MWC, Ubuntu first showed Ubuntu for Android. This solution essentially lets you turn your smartphone into a full fledged PC when connected to a dock – and it runs Ubuntu desktop apps and all. There’s even sharing of the most important data between the Android side and the Ubuntu side. That’s yet another extremely interesting idea from Canonical, but the caveat is that it has to be preinstalled by phone makers. Which hasn’t happened so far. Now we’re being promised that the first devices to ship with Ubuntu for Android will be seen this year – as a preview of sorts to Ubuntu for phones.

Ubuntu for phones will have two ‘versions’, with different hardware requirements. The high-end option will also come with ‘turns into a PC when docked’ functionality, just like Ubuntu for Android. The low-end offering won’t support this, because the hardware will be tailor made for cheap devices focused on emerging markets.

Author: Vlad Bobleanta

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