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Ubuntu heads to smartphones, tablets and TVs


By Nicole Kobie

Posted on 31 Oct 2011 at 08:32

Canonical is working on versions of Ubuntu for smartphones, tablets and televisions.

In an interview with PC Pro, founder Mark Shuttleworth, said the move to handheld devices is behind Ubuntu's controversial Unity interface, which will be used to give "coherence" across different form factors.

The next version of desktop Ubuntu, 12.04, is due in March, but that will feature no major changes as it's the long-term support version. Shuttleworth said the tablet and smartphone edition will be launched in the following two years, before the next LTS in April 2014.

We’ve been working towards this for a few years, staring work two years ago on designing of a new interface that specifically had this vision in mind

“We want to expand that [desktop Ubuntu] now to include what we see as the modern personal computing platforms of handsets – phones and tablets – as well as smart screens, whether they be TVs or other devices like smart monitors,” he said.

Shuttleworth said it wasn't a "last-minute decision", but Canonical knew the project would take some time and didn't want to leave people waiting when he was aware the work could take years.

"We’ve been working towards this for a few years, staring work two years ago on designing of a new interface that specifically had this vision in mind," he said. "The idea with Unity was to build an interface platform that could be coherent, even if it’s not dogmatically identical from one form factor to another."

Multiple personalities

Although they will share the same core, Canonical plans to develop a different version of Ubuntu for each different form factor. However, devices will be able to switch between versions, or "personalities".

"We want to enable handsets to behave like desktops when they’re in their desktop form factor, to behave like media centres when they’re connected to a television," he said.

"Each 'personality' has its own appropriate interface and interaction model," he said. "You can’t slap Windows 95 on TV – you can, but you won’t be very satisfied with the results – each of these form factors is distinct and different."

We want to enable handsets to behave like desktops when they’re in their in their desktop form-factor, to behave like media centres when they’re connected to a television

Apps will also recognise what type of hardware they’re running on and switch to the right type of UI. “We want you to be able to use Ubuntu through a tablet interface with applications behaving appropriately, and then turn around and say now I’ve got a keyboard and I want the full power of a desktop,” he said. “In our ideal world, the same app binary can present a tablet face and a phone face and a desktop face. Those are all going to be different, to more or less degrees.”

Each version will have the same core operating system, making it easier to develop apps across platforms. "That’s not to say that it’s a zero-cost effort, writing a tablet application is different to writing a phone application is different to writing a desktop application, but we can achieve very high levels of reuse and seamless transitions for them," he said. Native apps will be created in HTML5 and Nokia-backed QML.

Hardware on shelves

The software will be available for anyone to download and install on their own hardware, but Canonical plans to team up with hardware manufacturers to get Ubuntu tablets and smartphones on shelves in order to drive "widespread consumer adoption".

There will be no specific hardware requirements, but Shuttleworth said the work so far has shown that a decent touchscreen is necessary for a good user experience. "While Ubuntu has a reputation for being lean and being a good way to revive a PC, I think people will struggle if they have a device that has poor touch," he said.

Shuttleworth wouldn't offer a more specific roadmap other than a release happening sometime over the next two years. "We’ve had to dampen some expectations in that regard – there’s a very high level of demand for a talet alternative right now, and we know it’s going to take a bit of time to get it right," he added. "We thought Honeycomb was rushed to market and that was fairly evident in the results."

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User comments

This Benefits us

When there is competition, the User is King!

By IndainArt on 31 Oct 2011

2020 vision

That's my prediction, 2020 will be the year of Linux on the desktop. Sadly 2019 will be the year the desktop ceases to be a PC!

By milliganp on 31 Oct 2011

Year of Linux on the Desktop

that'll be about the 20th year that's been claimed then? Say it often enough and it may come true, but I doubt it.

By daveandrews1 on 31 Oct 2011


Where the bleeding edge is 5 years behind even the trailing edge of the least capable competition. Why bother?

By PaleRider on 1 Nov 2011

Leading edge

The various Linux-desktop projects have been developing and releasing tablet-suitable interfaces and apps in the form of GNOME3, KDE Plasma Active, Plasmoids (which are now moving to QML) and Unity for a few years now. Whereas Microsoft has only just released a few screenshots of something similar which might be released in a year or two.

Maybe Windows 8 Metro will be better than all the Linux efforts, and almost certainly it'll get more market share. But credit where credit's due - it's open source and Linux on the leading edge and not the trailing edge in this.

By happyskeptic on 3 Nov 2011

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