Thursday, January 03, 2013

Canonical goes Mobile with Ubuntu Phone

Ubuntu Phone

Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution is getting an smartphone interface. Dubbed Ubuntu Phone, it is aimed at providing a fast and beautiful experience, even on low-end hardware. Not having the overhead of a virtual machine (as in Android), native applications run at full speed with a small memory footprint and low battery drain. That delivers a responsive premium feel even in entry level smartphones.

It is worth mentioning that Ubuntu Phone is not an entirely new OS, but an interface layer on top of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. This means developers don't need to build different versions of their applications; the same code base can now serve both purposes: mobile and desktop.

Touch Optimized User Interface

Designed to make all your phone content easier to access and your apps more immersive – every edge has a specific purpose, making all your apps, content and controls instantly accessible, without navigating back to the home screen every time.

Ubuntu uses simple natural swiping gestures from the edges of the screen to make it easier than ever to access your content and switch between apps. Every edge of the phone is used, letting you move faster between apps, settings and content. This reminds me of the ill-fated Meego on the Nokia N9 (now Jolla Sailfish) only more refined.

Ubuntu Phone Swipe

  1. Favourite Applications: A short swipe from the left edge of the screen is all it takes to reveal your favourite apps. There’s room for everything you use daily, available instantly from the welcome screen or any application. Ubuntu lets you switch faster between running and favourite apps than any other phone.
  2. Open Applications: Page either left or right from the home screen to see the content you use most. A full left-to-right swipe reveals a screen showing all your open apps, while a swipe from the right brings you instantly to the last app you were using. Switching between running applications has never been quicker or easier.
  3. Going Back: A swipe from the right edge takes you back to the last app you were using; another swipe takes you back to the app you used before that. It’s natural to keep many apps open at once, which is why Ubuntu was designed for multi-tasking. No other smartphone lets you switch between applications this quickly.
  4. Application controls: Swiping up from the bottom edge of the phone reveals app controls. You can hide or reveal them instantly, which means they don’t take up room on the screen, leaving you free to focus on the stuff that matters. Immerse yourself in your photos, web pages, music, messages and apps.
The lock screen on Ubuntu Phone is so different that it's not called like this anymore. Instead, Canonical implemented the so called welcome screen containing dynamic, data-driven infographics that reflect the activity of the phone user. The welcome screen is ever-changing and totally unique, combining fluid interaction (there's no need to unlock the phone) with nice visuals, giving an experience that's both sophisticated and user friendly.

Desktop Interface

On high end smartphones, Ubuntu becomes a superphone, bringing a full PC desktop just by docking the device to a monitor and a keyboard. No need for synchronization or copying files back and forth, everything can be in one place. As Mark Shuttleworth said:

We’re shaping the future of personal computing. Ubuntu is proven on the desktop, and uniquely positioned to be at the heart of the next wave of consumer electronics, combining a beautiful hand-held touch interface with a full PC experience when docked.

Ubuntu Phone Docked

Applications and Development

Core applications (phone, contacts, music, photo & video gallery, etc..) are to be provided in Ubuntu Phone straight from Canonical and/or selected developers. But, obviously, the Ubuntu Software Center (or app store) will also be available in Ubuntu Phone (as in its desktop counterpart) to get all the applications you need from one central place.

Ubuntu Phone Apps

With Ubuntu Phone, it is both possible to create native apps or lightweight HTML5 apps easily with the SDK freely available from Canonical. Thankfully, the SDK is based on QML on top of Qt 5, so you'll get a solid, yet familiar, development environment from the very beginning. Developers who planned to invest on the now deceased Nokia Meego platform will, more or less, feel at home here.

Web applications can be refactored quite fast, so they look and behave almost as native applications. They get their own icons and have the same access to system notifications, so applications like Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, Gmail and Spotify are all available.

Ubuntu Phone Development

But Ubuntu isn’t limited to HTML5 applications. Native apps are fast, taking advantage of the full features of the phone’s processor and graphics hardware. And a mobile SDK does most of the work to give you that gorgeous, distinctive Ubuntu look and feel.

Electronic Arts (EA), Valve and some of the biggest gaming ISVs and game engine providers are already supporting Ubuntu alongside Windows on the PC. Games are known to run up to 15% faster on Ubuntu, and the platform is considered more open. The phone SDK enables HD 3D graphical rendering using full OpenGL ES graphics acceleration in the hardware.

Platform and compatibility

Although Canonical partnered with major hardware vendors (Asus, Dell, Lenovo, HP, etc..) for quite a long time in the desktop space, an OEM license for Ubuntu Phone is yet to be announced, although some deals might be on the works.

Ubuntu Phone is compatible with a typical Android Board Support Package (BSP), meaning it is ready to run on the most cost-efficient chipset designs and that it would be easy for handset manufacturers to deliver models with Ubuntu Phone onboard. OEM and carriers can customize Ubuntu Phone with their own services, content, apps and branding without breaking compatibility with the broader Ubuntu app ecosystem, so it is likely updates might come from Canonical Servers (similar to iOS and WP).

Canonical is known to be working on a specialized Android execution environment that could make it possible for Android applications to run on Ubuntu desktops alongside regular Linux applications. Now that we know of Ubuntu Phone, these efforts are more meaningful than ever.

What to expect from now on

In bringing Ubuntu to the phone, Canonical is uniquely placed with a single OS for client, server and cloud, and a unified family of interfaces for the phone, the PC and the TV. As Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and VP Products at Canonical, said:

We are defining a new era of convergence in technology, with one unified operating system that underpins cloud computing, data centres, PCs and consumer electronics.

I expect Canonical to announce a partnership with a major phone manufacturer during 2Q 2013, and a "pure" Ubuntu Smartphone to go on sale before year's end. Anything short of this may turn this great effort into a beautiful attempt.

What do you think? Can Ubuntu Phone become the third mobile ecosystem? Or will it be relegated to a niche (geek) target? Do have your say in the comments section below.