Canonical puts Ubuntu on Android smartphones

21 Feb 2012

Ubuntu for Android lets OSes run side-by-side, automatically picking the right platform for the task

Canonical has revealed Ubuntu for Android, a dual-OS concept that allows a smartphone to be used as a desktop when docked.

Ubuntu for Android features a full version of the open source desktop OS working alongside Google's mobile OS.

When the phone is being used as a smartphone, it runs Android. When it's docked into a laptop or a desktop setup, it automatically switches to Ubuntu, without user input or a restart.

"You've got your phone, you get to work, you just slip it in and you've got an Ubuntu desktop with the same contacts, same photos, same files and same network configurations," Canonical CEO Jane Silber told PC Pro.

It's not an application on Android - it's full Ubuntu, running alongside Android

"It's not an application on Android - it's full Ubuntu, running alongside Android," Silber said. "Which operating system takes over the phone is context sensitive."

Two OSes on one phone

Project manager Richard Collins demonstrated the system to PC Pro using a Motorola Atrix 2 - an Android smartphone that docks into a laptop body.

With Ubuntu for Android, files and applications are shared between the two OSes. For example, calls and text messages can be sent and received via Ubuntu in desktop mode.

When in docked mode, Ubuntu fully syncs email, displays Wi-Fi and other connectivity just as a phone would - including offering 3G access should you want it - and pulls in Android contacts, music and apps.

Android continues to run in the background, with everything kept synchronised. For example, if you're typing up an email in Ubuntu, but have to leave, picking up the phone from the dock will bring the message up in Android, allowing you to continue composing.

Ubuntu for Android

The demo handset was running Android 2.3, but Collins said it works with any subsequent version of Android. Because the OSes are held separately, updating one doesn't negatively affect the other. "We haven't customised Android at all, that's stock Android," Silber explained. "Updates to Android shouldn't affect it at all."

Because both OSes are Linux, integration is relatively easy. "It's a Linux solution for a Linux smartphone platform," said Collins. "Other than Android, we're interested in any smartphone platform that's Linux based as well, it's just that Android is the biggest one by a long-shot right now."

To work, handsets need to be dual-core, offer at least 1GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM, and support HDMI - fairly standard specs for higher-end modern smartphones.

Business focus

While Silber said the system could also support smart TVs - showing off the same phone running Ubuntu TV on a monitor - it's initially targeted at PCs and laptops.

"We think the main use case is for the converged device, of a laptop and smartphone converging, and in the enterprise for the mobile worker," she said.

The system integrates with Ubuntu One, Canonical's cloud storage and syncing tool, and also supports thin client solutions from VMware and Citrix, Collins added.

"In terms of a fully-fledged enterprise solution, if there's a thin-client environment that's something that works very, very well with this solution," Collins said.

However, the move is clearly part of Canonical's plans to move Ubuntu onto smartphones and tablets, following the release of Ubuntu TV earlier this year.

Silber said Ubuntu for Android would be released under an open source license, but that Canonical expects it to mostly be pre-installed on specific hardware.

"We'll want to optimise for certain hardware profiles and chips," she said. "It simply wouldn't be the same experience on a downloaded install."

Silber said the company was already in talks with some manufacturers, and Canonical will be showing off the system at Mobile World Congress in the hope of finding more handset makers to sign on. There's no launch date yet, but the software is ready to go, she said.

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