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CES 2013: Hands-off with Canonical's Ubuntu Smartphone OS

By Matthew Braga

With strong opposition from Apple and Android – the latter, also Linux-based – we went hands-on to see whether Ubuntu's mobile operating system has a fighting chance.

Ubuntu – one of the desktop's more popular Linux distributions – is coming to smartphones. And if Canonical has its way, you'll be able to buy one at your local cellular carrier sometime soon. For now, however, the product only exists on the CES show floor, and on 2011 Galaxy Nexus hardware at that.

Canonical is working hard to have an early version of Ubuntu available for developers and interested users to download and install themselves sometime soon. But can yet another mobile ecosystem find a way to thrive? With strong opposition from Apple and Android – the latter, also Linux-based – we went hands-off (Ubuntu actually wouldn't let us touch the device) to an initial impression of whether Ubuntu's mobile operating system has something interesting to offer in the mobile OS space.

Anyone who has used Ubuntu on the desktop will find Ubuntu for smartphones bears a few similarities. Unity – Canonical's desktop UI, which includes a strip of app icons along the left side of the screen – can be found on the mobile build too. It's hidden most of the time, but can be revealed from within any app using a horizontal swipe from the left edge of the screen. Recently accessed apps live here, but you can also access a full list from elsewhere in the OS too.

The version of Ubuntu for smartphones being show on the show floor was an alpha build, and as you might expect, limited to just core functionality – a homescreen with a large icon grid of recently accessed apps and music, a rudimnetary photo library, as well as pages for individual contacts. A downward pull from the top of the screen opens an Android-style tray, but dragging to the left or right without lifting your finger cycles through alternate pages of settings and notifications from various apps.

Though there are certainly bits of Android and features of iOS to be found – and even a card-style task manager of recent apps reminscient of WebOS thrown in for good measure – it's hard to easily compare Ubuntu's mobile operating system to any other OS. That's not to say the experience comes across half-baked, but rather, quite the opposite; Canonical appears to be thinking hard about creating new design paradigms and user experiences that build on more natural touch gestures, with swipes from the corners and sides, as well as some of the best aspects of other competing mobile platforms.

But just as interesting is what Ubuntu for smartphones doesn't borrow.

Though both Ubuntu and Android share a Linux base, you won't find Canonical using any Google code. There's not even a Java virtual machine for apps. Rather, desktop and mobile Ubuntu are cut from the same digital cloth, which means that apps written in QT, OpenGL and HTML5 can be designed to run seamlessly across both environments – similar to how there are universal binaries for iOS.

This shared fabric also opens up the ability to run a fully-fledged Ubuntu desktop from the phone as well. If you recall, at Tested's first CES in 2011 we saw a Motorola offering called Webtop on some of the company's high-end smartphones. When plugged into a laptop dock or connected to a high-definition TV over HDMI, a Webtop-capable phone would launch a fully-fledged windowed desktop environment running ontop of the Android OS, effectively turning the phone into a mobile, miniaturized desktop PC.

And although Motorola announced that it would discontinue Webtop last fall – citing a lack of consumer adoption – that doesn't seem to be stopping Canonical from pursuing a Webtop-style experience of its own. We're told Ubuntu for smartphones will operate in a similar fashion, and Canonical is even hoping to convince hardware manufactures with competiting Android operating systems to include Ubuntu desktop functionality as well (the latter was first announced last year).

Though Canonical has yet to give any specifics, we're told that an early version of Ubuntu on smartphones should be available to download soon for the Galaxy Nexus – and in time, additional phones as well. But don't expect the company to remain content with a Cyanogenmod-style distribution approach (the popular Android custom ROM can only be downloaded and installed by the user as an aftermarket upgrade, and doesn't come pre-installed). Rather, Canonical hopes that carriers and device manufacturers will warm to the idea of preloading Ubuntu on some of their phones.

That might not be the easiest of sells – Windows Phone and the now-defunct WebOS haven't fared particularly well, despite innovative UIs and carrier blessings – but perhaps Ubuntu can leverage its shared Linux roots to ride on the coattails of Android's success.