Yesterday, we at Linux User & Developer Towers were discussing the somewhat mysterious invite we had received from Canonical about the impending Ubuntu product announcement that evening. “You really think it’s going to be a Steam Box?” Linux User Editor Russell Barnes quizzically asked me. I replied that I merely thought it was a possibility, with the timing right thanks to the recent open beta of the client and Gabe Newell’s talk of Steam hardware. We published a story shortly thereafter with our two main theories: an Ubuntu for Android product, or an Ubuntu TV product.
We were close.
At about 5:20 pm yesterday, Mark Shuttleworth revealed the Ubuntu phone, pulling the classic Executive-announcing-a-mobile-product move by taking a special Galaxy Nexus from his jacket pocket. He then proceeded to give us a first look at this Ubuntu for Phones, a full Ubuntu OS for smartphones that sports a Unity-esque interface that Canonical believes is easier to use than Android or iOS. The trick to this is that all navigation occurs by tapping and swiping the four phone edges, each with a unique action.
Swiping from the left edge brings out the Unity app bar, where you can place some of your favourite apps and then also access the full home screen. Swiping from the right edge allows you to go back through all the apps you’ve been using, and swiping up from the bottom brings up the app specific controls. Swiping down from the top allows quick access to system settings for time, volume, networking, messaging, battery, etc – each can be modified without leaving the current screen as well.
After the initial play around to show off the interface, Shuttleworth went in a little more detail on the actual OS itself. It currently uses the Android Board Support Package, effectively allowing the OS to run on any current Android hardware with very little modifications needed. Currently, entry-level phones for the OS will need mid-high range specs, with a dual core Cortex A9 and 1 GB of RAM recommended, however within a few years the plan is to optimise it for even then most low powered phones. At the highest end, Ubuntu for Phones also includes the full Ubuntu desktop, accessible via docking similar to the Ubuntu for Android implementation, however it’s recommended to use a quad core CPU for this.
On the Galaxy Nexus the interface was fairly slick and responsive. The edge gestures worked well – although trying to select items in the corners was sometimes a little trick. It’s still undergoing some polish though on that front, and hopefully it won’t end up as a quirk users will have to work around. There are currently no confirmed networks or vendors onboard with using it just yet, however Shuttleworth assured us that they were in talks. Canonical are also showing it off at CES in Las Vegas in a hopes to attract possible partners and coverage.
App development wise, Canonical says they’ve been working closely with some of the major smartphone app developers for native Twitter, Facebook, and other popular apps to be ready for Ubuntu phones. Shuttleworth was keen to say that the OS was more open than any other mobile OS (although we’re sure some Meego fans may have something to say about that), and that development of apps and tools would be much easier using the Ubuntu framework.
There are no current release plans for any phone actually sporting the OS for the time being – but considering that no Ubuntu TV has graced stores yet, and even taking into account the delay to market with even Android, it shouldn’t be much cause for alarm just yet. At the very least during the conference, Shuttleworth reiterated that Ubuntu TVs were still a product they were focusing on, and hinting at the future unveiling of their tablet.