Canonical will need to work hard to compete with the big names
With a certain amount of fanfare, Canonical announced Ubuntu for smartphones. There was even a shade of Steve Jobs and the iPod in the way that Mark Shuttleworth produced a Google Nexus with Ubuntu from his pocket.
As excited as I am about the possibility of having a phone with Ubuntu, this was no iPhone launch. The iPhone was the first in its class and Canonical is hoping to compete in a very busy market. Sufficiently crowded that even Microsoft is finding it a challenge to make progress.
One platform to rule them all...
The long term goal for Canonical is to have Ubuntu running on phones, tablets, desktops, laptops and televisions.
Having consistency across all of your devices sounds like a good idea. The influence can clearly be seen in how Windows 8 for the desktop looks like it belongs on a tablet.
We've seen this before though with the likes of Windows Media Center and Apple TV. Ubuntu TV was announced this time last year but I can't find any actual devices available for sale.
...and in the cloud bind them
There's no point moving between devices if you can't access documents or your photos and videos. That's where Ubuntu One comes in as it keeps files on the cloud and then shares them with other devices. It won't come free though if you have more than 5GB of files; but the charges are competitive with other alternatives such as Dropbox or SugarSync.
Who might want an Ubuntu phone?
Curiously, Canonical is aiming Ubuntu on smartphones at the extreme ends of the smartphone users: newcomers to smartphones on the cheapest devices and owners of so-called super smartphones who expect a phone to function as a full computer when plugged into a monitor, keyboard and mouse.
The latter audience I can understand, and I'll be tempted to install it when I've got both a compatible phone and image, but I'm not sure what the smartphone beginners will make of it.
That's because it seems to be making the same User Interface assumptions of Windows 8 and the hidden Start Button. Different functions and app menus can be accessed by swiping from the different edges of the phone. It frees up more space for apps but my experience is that less confident users don't like invisible controls. To be more precise, they can't find them.
Who's going to make them?
The good news for enthusiasts such as myself is that, providing you have a phone up to the specifications, you will be able to install Ubuntu onto existing Android phones.
Even better, as both Android and Ubuntu use Linux as a foundation, phone hardware drivers for Android will work on Ubuntu.
The bad news is that every phone will need a customised installation. We'll have to wait and see how quickly they are produced.
As to phones that come with Ubuntu, this will likely be the deciding factor as to whether Ubuntu suceeds on smartphones. While discussions with mobile phone operators and manufacturers were described as very positive, there were no partners at the launch.
What about Apps?
I'm not convinced by the way in which many mobile devices are judged by the number of apps available at launch. A good browser is more important as I'll happily use my tools via the web, especially if it can include a useful start tab as Opera does.
A big thing in favour of Ubuntu for phone is that it can use both native apps and those written in HTML5. If you've installed the latest version of Ubuntu, you may have noticed how some websites such as Facebook or Gmail can work as if they are apps.
The various tools for making native apps for Ubuntu for phones are now available
And making calls...
We seem to keep forgetting that the point of having a phone is to make calls and send texts, even if the latter are being squeezed out by emails or Facebook messages. The phone functionality worked well in the demos that we saw and it has a single place to review missed called and new messages. Responses can be made to both without switching to different apps, which is a nice touch.
I genuinely like the look of Ubuntu for phones. Swiping to access different tools will take a little getting used to but does keep the screen free for whatever it is that you happen to be doing. Ultimately, whether it succeeds or fails will be down to the mobile companies and whether they decide to make them or not.
Watch the official trailer below
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