Canonical today announced a new version of Ubuntu designed specifically for smartphones to power everything from entry-level handhelds to "high-end superphones" that double as PCs.
The move by Canonical was long expected, although it is coming late to a market already dominated by the iPhone and Android-based devices. Ubuntu for phones isn't a whole new operating system. Instead, it is a "smartphone interface" for Ubuntu. This helps Ubuntu differentiate from other phone operating systems by Voltron-ing itself into a full-fledged PC when docked to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard.
Ubuntu has previously been in the smartphone game with Android devices that become a modified Ubuntu PC when docked. This didn't make much of an impact, as the most prominent such device—the Motorola Atrix and lapdock—has been discontinued.
Ubuntu for Android is a separate product, which Canonical will continue to maintain. The newly announced version of Ubuntu will run on smartphones without any reliance on Android, however. This helps fulfill founder Mark Shuttleworth's promise of having Ubuntu become one operating system from phones to supercomputers.
There will be many challenges, primarily getting hardware partners on board. Canonical's press release today included supporting quotes from ARM and the makers of the Qt application framework, but none from smartphone manufacturers. On a new webpage describing Ubuntu for phones, Canonical tries to lure phone makers with the promise that "[w]e have the needs of network operators, OEMs, and ODMs in mind in bringing Ubuntu to the phone. It offers great performance on handsets with a low bill of materials, while opening up new opportunities for phone and PC convergence at the top end of the market."
Canonical will share more details this afternoon in a press conference and we will update this story with more information. For now, here is more of what we know.
The Ubuntu interface will feature the following:
- Edge magic: thumb gestures from all four edges of the screen enable users to find content and switch between apps faster than other phones.
- Deep content immersion—controls appear only when the user wants them.
- A beautiful global search for apps, content, and products.
- Voice and text commands in any application for faster access to rich capabilities.
- Both native and Web or HTML5 apps.
- Evolving personalized art on the welcome screen.
Entry-level Ubuntu phones will require a 1Ghz Cortex A9 processor and between 512MB and 1GB of memory, while the high-end superphones that double as PCs will require a quad-core A9 or Intel Atom processor and at least 1GB RAM.
Canonical will try to avoid the type of fragmentation that affected Android by providing "engineering services to offload the complexity of maintaining multiple code bases… freeing the manufacturer to focus on hardware design and integration," the company said. "For silicon vendors, 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."
Canonical also said Ubuntu for phones "doesn’t have the overhead of a Java virtual machine, so all core applications run at full native speeds with a small memory footprint." A QML toolkit and sample application are available for developers to download. A forthcoming Ubuntu software development kit will make it easier to build applications that run on both the desktop and phone.
The Ubuntu Software Centre will be extended to phones for use as an app store, but sadly it sounds like Ubuntu phones will get some of the same carrier-built apps that come with many Android devices and are generally useless. Canonical said, "Ubuntu offers compelling customization options for partner apps, content, and services. Operators and OEMs can easily add their own branded offerings. Canonical’s personal cloud service, Ubuntu One, provides storage and media services, file sharing and a secure transaction service which enables partners to integrate their own service offerings easily."
Web apps will also play a big role, with Canonical's "unique Web app system [that] lets you quickly adapt any Web property for installation as an app on the phone, running independently of the browser, with its own icon and access to system services."
In addition to low-cost smartphones, Ubuntu will help OEMs build a "single enterprise superphone" that converges phone, PC, and thin client into one (in Canonical's words). Canonical noted that Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo all certify the majority of their PCs to run Ubuntu, but it did not say whether any of these companies plan to make any smartphone/PC hybrids using Ubuntu. That will be one of the things we'll try to find out at this afternoon's press conference, along with timing on when an Ubuntu phone will actually hit the market.