For quite a while, Canonical has been talking about making a mobile Ubuntu for applications in the smartphone market. At first, it sounded like the company would make a custom version of the Ubuntu OS just for phones, but then it released Ubuntu for Android, which ran desktop Ubuntu alongside regular Android for docked setups. However, while many people though that might be the end of the mobile Ubuntu project, there were some hints that the company was still working on a native mobile OS. Yesterday, all those rumors were confirmed, as Canonical demoed a new Ubuntu Phone OS.
Shown by Mark Shuttleworth in London running on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the OS looked quite impressive although details on the features are still fairly scarce. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the interface, and the team says that the UI is based off of fullscreen apps and voice commands. The design also takes many cues from desktop Ubuntu, from the color scheme to the dock on the left portion of the display. Users familiar with the desktop version of Unity should notice many familiar elements, but it is also clear that a lot of work went into making the design work well on mobile devices. Ubuntu actually does have its own app store and web apps will be integrated into the interface, but average users will probably look for familiar titles from Android and iOS. While it may be possible to port many Android applications to Ubuntu Phone OS, there have been no promises made by Canonical about app availability.
Unfortunately, while the OS was quite impressive on the last generation Nexus, there aren’t yet any hardware partners for Ubuntu’s mobile software venture. However, Canonical is quite confident that there will be a manufacturer shipping Ubuntu Phone OS devices by the end of the year, and plan to have devices on the market by the end of the year. A fuller feature set will also be demonstrated at CES this year, which should help get more partners on board.
Of course, due to the nature of Ubuntu and the Ubuntu Phone OS, there are certainly going to be efforts to run Ubuntu on non-official devices soon enough. Surprisingly, the minimum specifications for a device to run Ubuntu Phone OS are actually quite low. With only a dual-core A9 processor, 1GB of RAM, and an 800 x 400 display, a basic device can run the OS. According to Canonical, even with these lower specs the experience should be very good, and “crisper” and “sharper” than other low-end devices.
The one thing that lower end devices will miss out on is the “convergence” feature, which allows a docked device to run a full desktop Ubuntu interface much like Ubuntu for Android. In order to use this feature, device must have at least a quad-core A9 processor, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and a SD slot, and a 720p resolution display. Most current high-end smartphones meet these requirements, with the exception of the storage requirement. Of course, although it sounds like an SD slot is required, the demo Galaxy Nexus does not have one, so perhaps it really isn’t mandatory.
Based on just the short descriptions on Ubuntu’s official website, the new Ubuntu Phone OS looks very polished and impressive. It has the backing of a moderately sized company and plenty of open source developers, has good design, many unique features, and already has quite a few applications. At this point, I don’t think it stands much of a chance of dethroning Android and iOS anytime soon, but I know that as soon as a build of the OS is available for the Nexus 4 or Nexus 7, I’ll be installing it. Who knows, maybe it will really be that good and I’ll have to retract my previous statement.