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Ubuntu Off to a Promising Start on Smartphones

An early version of Ubuntu’s touch-centric OS looks smartly designed and worth watching as it develops.
March 1, 2013

The company that makes the popular Ubuntu Linux operating system, Canonical, recently announced what I like to think of as a Lord of the Rings software philosophy: one operating system for PCs, smartphones, tablets, and TVs. Not only is it an ambitious idea, but early images and videos of smartphones and tablets running the new software look intuitive and impressively touch-focused.

I’ve spent some time playing around with this one-size-fits-all OS through what the company calls the Ubuntu Touch Developer Preview, a very early version of the OS released in late February that can be installed on just a few Android smartphones and tablets. As the name suggests, it’s far from ready for mass consumption. It’s really more of a shell of an OS with only a handful of working features, meant to let developers and enthusiastic Ubuntu fans get a feel for it and make apps that will run on it. That said, it’s cleverly designed, and I’m excited to see how it grows and changes over the coming months.

The first time I turned on my Ubuntu-running smartphone—a Galaxy Nexus—I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, since I purposely put off reading the developer notes in order to simply play around with it and see what would happen.

The first screen that comes up looks similar to any other smartphone lock screen, indicating the time and, in this case, the number of tweets you’ve received. (As far as I could tell, it’s a dummy screen; though I was able to log in to Twitter on the phone, the number of tweets “received” never changed.)

One defining characteristic of the OS is its touch-centricity. Swiping from left to right reveals a tidy row of icons representing different applications. Rather than just swiping down from the top of the screen to see all your notifications at once, you can swipe down on individual icons at the top of the screen—battery and message indicators, for example—to see things like how much juice the phone has left or how many messages you’ve gotten. Smart move, Ubuntu.

There is a “Home” screen that shows the apps you’ve got open, those you use most, your favorite contacts, people you’ve recently chatted with, and more. Swiping from the middle of the screen in either direction brings you to more screens (there’s one for contacts, another for apps, and so on). A hard swipe from right to left will bring up the last app you were using, and if you’ve got several open, you can swipe through those, too. You can also swipe up hard from the bottom of the screen to bring up a sort of command center that shows options for controlling various apps (including the option to use voice recognition, which was barely functional and will need to be greatly expanded in future releases).

It took me some time to get used to all this swiping. I kept forgetting what swipe would bring up what, and I was confounded by the general absence of a back button. It certainly didn’t help that there was often a delay (or no response) when I swiped across the screen. Understandable since the software is still so early-stage, but frustrating nonetheless.

A handful of apps currently work, such as a simple camera, Web browser, and photo viewer. The browser, which at this stage works only over Wi-Fi (and slowly at that), is quite sparse, with an address bar hidden at the bottom of the page (you have to swipe to see it). You can also make calls and send text messages over a GSM network, which I did over T-Mobile’s network, and shoot images and check them out in a simple, cleanly designed gallery app. It took a few tries, but I was eventually able to watch the trailer for the documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto, which was included with the OS.

I’m curious to know what kind of e-mail, mapping, search, and calendar functions will be included with the finished OS, and, of course, how many apps—both native and HTML5—developers will create. Ubuntu’s popularity among programmers could work in its favor here, but it’s still starting a long way behind iOS or Android.

Most people probably won’t try Ubuntu on a smartphone for a while yet. The existing version of the OS can run only on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 smartphones and the Nexus 7 and 10 tablets, and you’ll need a computer running Ubuntu to install it. You must also be unafraid of irreparably damaging, or “bricking,” your gadget (a possibility, as Ubuntu admits in the installation instructions), and you’ll need extreme patience, as it’s still sluggish and temperamental.

Canonical says a version of Ubuntu offering a “complete entry-level smartphone experience” is slated for October. Eventually, it could grow to be a compelling OS for multiple devices and a viable alternative to Android and iOS. That’s a pretty tight deadline, and if Ubuntu is going to be the one OS to rule them all, there’s still plenty of work to do.

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