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In depth interview: Ubuntu Touch aims to learn from Android's mistakes

Posted: , by Michael H.

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In depth interview: Ubuntu Touch aims to learn from Android's mistakes
Last week, we sat down with Canonical’s Director of Engineering, Pat McGowan, to learn everything we could about Ubuntu Touch, including how it started, where the product is now, and what to expect in the future. We learned quite a lot, and throughout our chat there was a theme that kept popping up both directly and indirectly - while Canonical is working to build a mobile platform that is both completely new and completely Ubuntu, it is clear that the team has kept an eye on Android and aims to learn from Google’s mistakes.

Many people are quick to try lumping Android and Ubuntu Touch together simply because both platforms are Linux-based and open source; but, as any Linux user can tell you, that viewpoint is just as misguided as trying to claim that Ubuntu and Fedora are similar products. While Ubuntu Touch and Android share a similar kernel, and certain principles of openness (though not as many as you might think), the two products are different animals that may face some of the same issues, especially in terms of consumer awareness, but Pat McGowan isn’t too worried about that.

With the right partnerships, if it's on your phone, I don't think [consumers] will care. They won't know. They may know it's Ubuntu, but they didn't know what Android was before they got an Android phone. We have to get to a point where it's not necessarily Linux per se, I think. On the desktop, it's always, ‘Oh, that? That's Linux.’ Well there's a lot of difference between Ubuntu and how it presents Linux and some other things. The fact that it's Linux, at some point it's not the important part for the consumer. It's important for us, because we know what gets us in terms of being able to build the system. But, I think that's branding. It's Ubuntu, it's not anything else.

The Genesis of Ubuntu Touch

Ubuntu began in 2004 and quickly generated interest within the Linux community. Developers gathered around the product, and more importantly the ethos of the distribution. At the time, Linux distros were the realm of the tech elite, and were not accessible to average users. Mark Shuttleworth gathered developers from the Debian community to change that. The goal was to create a Linux distrobution that was easy-to-use, easy to obtain, and held to a strict update schedule. The first two parts of that strategy were the real keys of course, because accessibility opened up a much wider user base for the OS.

In depth interview: Ubuntu Touch aims to learn from Android's mistakes
Before Pat McGowan joined Canonical back in 2007, he worked for Pepper Computer. The company made the Pepper Linux distro, and also released a few Pepper Pad tablets. Of course, this being the mid-2000s, Pepper Pad tablets held the limitations you would expect from devices of that time with reportedly difficult text input, troublesome touch capabilities, and a relatively hefty size compared to tablets of today (the hardware was 11.4” wide, with a 7” screen, and weighed just over 2 pounds). The Pepper Pad looked more like a Wii U GamePad with a physical keyboard than the slate tablets of today, but the device clearly showed the fascination with touch devices that would explode over the next 6 years, and one that McGowan and others brought to Canonical.

McGowan and a few others from the Pepper Computer team joined Canonical in 2007, and it wasn’t until a few years later that work truly began on making Ubuntu ready for mobile devices. Canonical brought in people from Nokia and other companies to work on the project, and the push to mobile began in earnest about one and a half to two years ago. Although those inside Canonical and the Ubuntu Community had wanted the platform to go mobile, this pivot began mainly with the adoption of the Unity user interface as the default rather than the traditional GNOME Shell.

Unity brought the two features that have become the core of Ubuntu Touch: the Unity launcher, with its larger touch-friendly icons, and the Dash, which is a highly pluggable Scopes system that blends the desktop with the web, and uses search to expose any and all content that you may want. The adoption of Unity did cause some dissidence in the user base, because some preferred the traditional desktop; but, despite that, Ubuntu has continued to grow, and is now one of the largest Linux distros around.

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posted on 30 May 2013, 09:15 17

1. meyy91 (Posts: 7; Member since: 15 Mar 2013)

Another contestant in d race of smartphones..!! Good luck UBUNTU..! :)

posted on 30 May 2013, 11:00 8

15. gmracer1 (Posts: 646; Member since: 28 Dec 2012)

In "d" race? Modern language has become dreadful.

posted on 31 May 2013, 18:11

39. kozza3 (Posts: 700; Member since: 17 Oct 2012)

get over it, people are going to speak/type the way the they are comfortable speaking/typing... most of the online community doesn't care anyways

"language - the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community" - merriam-webster

posted on 30 May 2013, 09:25 19

2. rahulz (Posts: 117; Member since: 25 Feb 2013)

Ubuntu seems very promising
and user interface looks so coool..

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:30 8

10. mafiaprinc3 (Posts: 540; Member since: 07 May 2012)

it does look beautiful

posted on 30 May 2013, 09:35 8

3. sonisoe (Posts: 414; Member since: 06 May 2009)

why cant stock android look this beautiful.. other newcomers tizen and jolla are also beautiful

posted on 30 May 2013, 09:43 9

5. Jason2k13 (Posts: 1214; Member since: 28 Mar 2013)

the beauty about android is... you can make it beautiful or ugly... the power of customisation.

posted on 30 May 2013, 14:17 4

23. josephnero (Posts: 555; Member since: 16 Nov 2011)

Download ubuntu UCCW theme from playstore and get exactly this look.android FTW

posted on 05 Jun 2013, 18:10

45. Zero0 (Posts: 592; Member since: 05 Jul 2012)

In my opinion, Android is the second best looking mobile OS (behind Windows Phone 7-8). Relatively minimalistic, I like the card motif, it just looks good. Not that Ubuntu isn't nice looking, but I don't put it on the same level as Android 4.x and WP7.

posted on 30 May 2013, 09:38 6

4. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)

Michael, thank you for another great, full-scale article, your articles are the best in PhonePrena.com. :)

posted on 30 May 2013, 09:46 1

7. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5498; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)


posted on 31 May 2013, 18:12

40. kozza3 (Posts: 700; Member since: 17 Oct 2012)

what a freaking LOSER!!!

im just kidding! :P

posted on 30 May 2013, 09:45 1

6. yowanvista (Posts: 340; Member since: 20 Sep 2011)

Ubuntu Phone is an absolute abomination. They took Android and stripped off a lot of stuff including the Dalvik VM but the core of Ubuntu Phone is STILL Android, the services and everything at the hardware level and even the kernel is still Android. So Ubuntu Phone is just some pile of crap using forked CyanogenMod modules and running on top of Android.


"Ubuntu is running in a separated container on top of an Android kernel and services"

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:21 7

8. bart7773 (Posts: 7; Member since: 04 Oct 2009)

On the last page of this article (Hardware section) the comments were made regarding the use of the Android kernel and hardware layer

"The kernel is a bit of a hybrid at this point. It's an Android kernel to some extent, but it's got all the Ubuntu configuration. In order to get it to work on the hardware, we don't have access to a lot of the source code for all the hardware drivers; so, we have to run the Android binaries to get these devices to work. The binaries that are built for Android are not compatible with binaries you would build for Ubuntu; so, we have to do this mapping layer to help the communication."

Makes sense to me that this would have to be the case until Canonical can get their hands on the majority of the source code.

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:42 6

12. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

As Bart said, the kernel is a modified Android kernel, yes some services are Android as well, because right now Ubuntu Touch only runs on Android hardware, so those services are needed to make it work. Once the hardware is made specifically for Ubuntu, all of the Android pieces will be stripped out.

posted on 30 May 2013, 17:29

30. Suo.Eno (Posts: 500; Member since: 17 Feb 2013)

Well not necessarily specifically but at least a proper reference phone + tablet. This is precisely where I feel that Canonical/Ubuntu are still failing at, that they should have reached out to OEMs 1st the way FF did w/ their OS. See how seemingly out of the blue a few OEMs came out w/ some FF OS phones.

posted on 30 May 2013, 18:29

32. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

Yes, and you've seen all of the interest and media coverage Firefox OS has generated with its strategy.

Canonical is in talks with manufacturers to release Ubuntu devices, but in the meantime, it wants to get the platform out into the hands of developers. There's no performance hit; so, what's the harm in making it easy to put the OS on Android devices?

posted on 30 May 2013, 12:11

20. ianbbaa (Posts: 305; Member since: 20 Mar 2013)

i thought that Dalvik VM makes the so called "lag" on android...so is it good that they removed it or bad???

posted on 30 May 2013, 17:30

31. Suo.Eno (Posts: 500; Member since: 17 Feb 2013)

It's only good if there's already a working and more streamlined solution but as it stands there's no productive results to be gained yet.

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:22 2

9. threed61 (Posts: 205; Member since: 27 May 2011)

Very nice article! I like Ubuntu a lot, but I wonder if they'll ever convince OEM's of the need for a second Linux mobile platform when Android is already widely accepted.

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:33

11. jellmoo (Posts: 1632; Member since: 31 Oct 2011)

"For example, while Linux Mint was born as a fork of Ubuntu, it has really only attracted the small faction of users that refused to accept the Unity interface, and not much more."

Wait... what??? Since there is little verifiable info regarding distro install base, this statement is way off. Head over to Distrowatch and take a look at the hits per distro and you will see Mint as way higher than Ubuntu. Now, I'm not saying that this is a completely accurate indicator, and Ubuntu does likely have the higher use base, but I think you aren't quite acknowledging the true popularity Mint has, which predates the Unity interface.

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:45

13. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

Sorry, I should have linked this:http://www.statowl.com/operating_system_market_share_by_os_version.php?limit%5B%5D=linux

posted on 30 May 2013, 13:19

21. jellmoo (Posts: 1632; Member since: 31 Oct 2011)

It's definitely a viable metric, but I don't think it really gives the whole picture as it is a tracking a single item. This article helps to illustrate how tracking distro user base is incredibly difficult:


posted on 30 May 2013, 14:17

24. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

Understood. I edited the article for clarity. Thanks!

posted on 30 May 2013, 10:57 4

14. zekes (Posts: 229; Member since: 14 Aug 2012)

ok android sit down now

posted on 30 May 2013, 11:16

16. bart7773 (Posts: 7; Member since: 04 Oct 2009)

Ubuntu could offer consumers another viable option that will also help keep the market competitive. The concept that this type of device could be powerful enough to truly become a mobile AND functional desktop platform is extremely appealing. Above all though the device and its use must be solid, quick, versitile, and intuitive. I'm exicted to see where this goes and, if success is in the cards, how this might help others in the industry evolve further.

posted on 30 May 2013, 11:53

17. geodude074 (Posts: 99; Member since: 05 Mar 2013)

Is there a Ubuntu app store?

If so, how many apps are available on it?

Just because an OS looks pretty and is functional, doesn't mean it's going to win consumers over (read: Windows 8). The app selection is critical in the success of an OS.

What's the point of flashing Ubuntu on a tablet if there aren't any apps to go along with it?

posted on 30 May 2013, 15:58 2

25. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

There is the Ubuntu Software Centre for desktops (https://apps.ubuntu.com/cat/), which will eventually house the apps for mobile (of course the apps for mobile will work on desktops as well, so it's unclear how it will be organized).

I can't say how many apps are available, but there are quite a lot for desktops. I haven't yet found anything that I wanted that didn't exist for Ubuntu in one form or another. And, since the plan is to give developers easy tools to update apps to support mobile, it shouldn't be too big of an issue.

Keep in mind, while Windows 8 was something completely different from what came before, so developers had to learn a completely new design language. Ubuntu isn't changing that radically, it's just adding a few new screen sizes to the mix, the underlying code is still the same.

posted on 31 May 2013, 05:50

33. taikucing (unregistered)

*cough cough*

Steam for linux

*cough cough*

posted on 30 May 2013, 11:56 2

18. jackhammeR (Posts: 1548; Member since: 17 Oct 2011)

Great article. The rest in PA should learn from M. Haller.
Great job mr. Haller.

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