Canonical announces Ubuntu Phone OS coming in early 2014


We had heard a couple days ago that Canonical was planning to ring in the New Year with an announcement of a new Ubuntu product. At the time, we were under the impression that the event was going to be a product release, not just an announcement, so we were prepping to hear about Ubuntu for Android. But, today's event turned out to be an announcement, not a release, and the announcement was for Ubuntu for phones, which will be released in early 2014.


This falls in line with previous comments by Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth, who said that the work to put Ubuntu on phones and tablets should be done in time for the release of Ubuntu 14.04 in April 2014, and it has been confirmed that 14.04 will be a universal OS that can run on mobile devices and traditional PCs alike. In the announcement today, Shuttleworth said that Ubuntu for phones had been designed from the ground up to offer a "crisper, sharper" experience on low-end phones. He expects these low-end phones to drive adoption, much like Ubuntu's Linux-based cousin, Android. Ubuntu will have a "lean mode" which would run well on a device with an A9 ARM processor and 1GB RAM, and a "heavy mode" for high-end hardware. Shuttleworth says that Ubuntu will also target emerging markets (which is a big opportunity) by offering a "less complex" user experience than the competition. 

Canonical will also target enterprise markets and high-end markets by converging Ubuntu on mobile and traditional desktops creating a hybrid system that we've seen in the demos of Ubuntu for Android, so your phone will be able to double as your PC if you have the right docking station. No word yet on hardware partners, if any, that will be making the Ubuntu phones. But, Canonical says that "Ubuntu is compatible with a typical Android Board Support Package (BSP). This means Ubuntu is ready to run on the most cost-efficient chipset designs." And, for all you modders out there, Canonical has promised images that can be installed on a Galaxy Nexus to be released within the next few weeks.

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In the demo showing off the phone, Shuttleworth showed how that "less complex" experience may look. For instance, an Ubuntu phone won't have a lock screen, but rather a "welcome screen" which will be personally tailored to you and the information you want. Ubuntu will also supposedly offer more screen space for apps than other platforms. Lastly, Shuttleworth said that the team has "invited a way to use an app without having to use buttons at all via a voice-controlled ‘HUD’", which will also be found in the upcoming desktop version 13.04, due in April. 

As you can see in the trailer below, Ubuntu for phones uses a ton of gestures to navigate the OS, including pulling the Unity bar from the left to access app shortcuts. Swiping down from the top will bring various options like a unified Messaging tray, sound options, battery info, and connectivity settings by swiping from each icon at the top. Swiping from right to left will cycle through open apps. It's also easy to see the features the phone shares with the desktop environment like the Dash search. No word yet on what to expect from the app ecosystem, but that info usually wouldn't start filtering out until we get closer to release. But, the OS will support native apps as well as Web apps and HTML5 apps.  

Apps will be made available through The Ubuntu Software Centre, and Canonical has confirmed that it will allow "customization options for partner apps, content, and services. Operators and OEMs can easily add their own branded offerings." Canonical also says that it will try to keep a unified system, even though the OS will be open source by offering "engineering services to offload the complexity of maintaining multiple code bases… freeing the manufacturer to focus on hardware design and integration." But, it's unclear exactly how that will work out in practice.  

A QML toolkit and application SDK are expected to be released soon to help devs get started on building apps for the platform. Ubuntu is looking to distance itself from Android and the troubles Google had with Oracle by removing the Java virtual machine from the equation. According to Canonical, this also means that "all core applications run at full native speeds with a small memory footprint."


Overall, Ubuntu for phones looks really nice, and we're definitely excited about getting our hands on the early images to test it out. The only concerns right now are in 3rd party support. Canonical has the support of ARM and the makers of the Qt application framework, but no word on support from hardware manufacturers, even those who have traditionally supported Ubuntu, like Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, but to be fair, none of those companies are really in the smartphone market. 

The other big question surrounding Ubuntu for phones is what we should expect from it as far as market penetration. Without support of hardware manufacturers, the OS will be relegated to enthusiasts, but there is enough in the system that it could get hardware support. If it does get hardware support, it's as yet unclear if the software side can offer enough to make a push in the Android/iOS dominated market. But, we definitely think that aiming for emerging markets is a good start. 

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