Ubuntu for Mobile: Linux arrives in the Mobile World

Does it sometimes feel to you that in the Mobile world, the OS war has pretty much been decided? iOS and Android win and everyone else is grabbing at the scraps left over under the table. Windows Phone, Blackberry, Symbian, the casualties of the 2 horse race that it quickly became when the smartphone market began really taking off.

The advantage of this of course is that for customers, it’s pretty easy to decide what to get from a modern mobile device; you’re either going Android or iOS, that’s usually about as far as your choices go. And with iOS and Android moving ever closer to each other in terms of features and design, all you’re really buying in the newest hardwares is a brand name and maybe a couple of gimmicks of that particular handset or tablet.

Well, as of CES 2013, there’s another challenger arrived on the scene.

Ubuntu for Mobile, being developed by Canonical, is set to take aim at Android and iOS by the end of this year. And from the initial reveal at CES, it’s looking like the Linux challenger is headed in the right direction.

Canonical were running Ubuntu on a Galaxy Nexus, now a year old device (positively ancient these days), during their “hands off” demo at the convention and showed off the range of the OS’s capabilities.

At first glance Ubuntu looks very familiar when compared to iOS or Android, looking like a fusion of the two design styles. There’s the now expected app icon tile rows, notifications bar along the top and large clock interface on the lock screen.

Where it differs, however, is in how the user interacts with it. There are no hard or soft buttons, no home button, no back button. Instead everything is done through “swipe magic” where every side of the screen can be swiped out to different effect. Swipe from the left and you get the app launcher bar that has been carried over from the desktop version of Ubuntu, swipe from the right and you switch between different active apps, swipe from the bottom and you get app specific menus very similar to the ones found in Windows 8 and up top we have the now traditional notifications bar. The notifications bar is slightly different in that you can also scroll through phone menu options if you swipe to the left or right at the top of the notifications bar.

The interface seems to be based around trying to move away completely from having static pieces of screen and instead making everything as fluid and seamless as possible. It’s certainly different enough for people to sit up and pay attention, and even in it’s equivalent Alpha stages, the OS seems to be running very smoothly on older hardware.

There is a certain amount of user customisation involved, like what widget to display on the lock screen, but the freedom found on Android is not there in the same sense. Canonical seem to be angling Ubuntu Mobile towards allowing different mobile carriers to customise the OS as they see fit to work with their own business. Anyone who’s used a Jailbroken iPhone, Nexus device or flashed Android device will have realised how detrimental carrier and phone manufacturer customisation can be to the end user experience so this decision may come back to bite Canonical, but only time will tell.

As for apps, Ubuntu will have native apps, but its main source of apps will come from Web apps that can hook into the OS. This may be both a blessing and a curse for the OS as on the one hand, Open Source has been proven to inspire the creation of very good pieces of software (VLC player for example), on the other hand it could mean that the OS never gets the same high quality apps that iOS and Android users are now used to having access too.

Ubuntu Mobile is essentially the exact same thing as the desktop version, and Canonical have stated that on the more powerful handsets Unbuntu will be able to plug into a keyboard, mouse and monitor to become a working desktop computer. This may appeal to some, especially those who prefer to just have everything in the one place rather than spread out over several devices, and the uses in, say, the corporate world can’t be denied either.

Of course, all of this sounds great on paper, but the main problem for Ubuntu is of course getting it onto handsets and convincing the public that it’s worth buying. They could be making the greatest mobile OS in existance, but it won’t matter if no one ever uses it due to poor marketing and uptake by the big manufacturers and carriers. Canonical also face the problem of having to actually finish the experience, as right now they have only the most basic functions for the OS nailed down. Many smartphone tasks that we take for granted such as email synching, an address book, being able to play media etc, don’t currently work on Ubuntu OS.

That all said, however, even in its earlier stages Ubuntu for Mobile is looking like it could just be a more effective challenger to the current kingpins of the mobile OS world than many would give it credit for. If the team at Canonical can finish the OS and bring it up to speed with the currently expected features of smartphones, they very well could be onto an unexpected dark horse in the race.

Time shall tell of course, just as time tells for every project. The faster Canonical can move, the easier it will be for them to get onto the smartphone train before the next big set of releases happens in the summer and the game is stepped up yet again by the likes of Apple with the next iPhone or Samsung with the Galaxy S IV. If not, they may very well be fighting an uphill battle.

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