Ubuntu aims high and low with new smartphone OS

Ubuntu unveils smartphone version of open source operating system

Barry Collins
2 Jan 2013

Ubuntu has taken the wraps off a smartphone version of its operating system, which will be targeted at both low-end handsets and "super phones" running desktop applications.

Speaking at a launch event in London, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth claimed Ubuntu will be the only operating system to offer a consistent interface across smartphone, tablets and PCs.

Ubuntu Phone is targeting two very different types of user. At the low end, Shuttleworth claims the OS will provide a streamlined alternative to Android. "We will deliver a fantastic user experience - clean, crisp and fast - on low-end models," he said.

The complexity of Android is overkill

"The complexity of Android is overkill," he added.

At the other end of the scale, Ubuntu will also run on a new category of "super phones", allowing users to dock their smartphone and run a traditional PC desktop using full desktop applications. "This is Ubuntu - it's the whole deal," said Shuttleworth. "You can dock this and get the full desktop with [virtualised] Windows applications."

Fresh interface

Ubuntu's smartphone OS is strikingly different from its rivals. The equivalent of the lock screen provides a graphical visualisation of key metrics for the user, such as the number of text messages they've received or unread tweets.

Ubuntu Phone lock screen

In an echo of the Unity interface, the most commonly used apps are accessed by swiping in from the left edge of the smartphone screen, while a swipe from the right-hand side returns the user to the last used app, making it simple to multitask.

Ubuntu Phone will support both native apps - an SDK will be with developers this week - and HTML5-based web apps. Although there were strikingly few native apps running on the demo handsets at the launch event, Shuttleworth - perhaps optimistically - claims developers will quickly rally round. "The average Android developer is already using Ubuntu," he claims. "We already have a broad cross-section of developers who are comfortable with Ubuntu."

The Ubuntu founder was reluctant to talk about battery life, claiming that the OS needed to be tailored to specific hardware and that "there was a lot of stuff running in the background that doesn't need to be running" in this early version of the OS, which was installed on a third-generation Google Nexus handset. However, he claimed users would be able to install Ubuntu Phone on their own hardware.

Built on Android

The operating system is being built upon the Android kernel and drivers, which means that any handset manufacturer "using Android today can run Ubuntu tomorrow", according to Shuttleworth.

Ubuntu Phone search

However, Shuttleworth conceded that he had yet to convince any network operators to back the new operating system. "We've not yet had a meeting [with the operators] that was negative; we don't yet have a signed-up agreement with any operator," he said.

Shuttleworth said the first smartphone to be running Ubuntu natively should be on the market within the next nine to twelve months.

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