Ubuntu for phones: A Q&A explainer

Ubuntu for phones looks slick, but doesn't really exist quite yet. Credit: Image via Ubuntu for phones

Ubuntu isn't quite making its own smartphone, but it's not just a hack project, either. Let us explain.

You might have seen some buzz about the Ubuntu for smartphones announcement on Wednesday. Ubuntu, the maker of a rather popular, Linux-based server and desktop operating system is looking to load itself onto smartphones. Which phones, made by whom? Is Ubuntu looking to come pre-installed, or arrive as an after-market installation? What can Ubuntu offer that Apple and Android haven’t covered?

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Good questions! Let’s answer some of them.

Question: Ubuntu wants to make a phone operating system, huh?

Answer: Actually, Ubuntu wants to bring a full desktop operating system, and a phone-sized version, to your phone, or a future phone. The way Ubuntu sees it, you can have a phone that makes calls, browses the web, scans Twitter and all that through the phone-focused version of Ubuntu. Then, when you’re ready to work, you could hook up your phone to a monitor, keyboard, and other accessories and start cranking on the Ubuntu desktop that more than 20 million people use.

Q: You can run a full desktop OS off a phone?

A: Off of certain phones, yes. Ubuntu is looking at phones with quad-core processors, which offer the same kind of multi-tasking and processing oomph that desktops utilize. Phones have been demanding so much of their hardware lately that their hardware has quietly crept up to the realm of desktop-readiness.

Q: So, hook up my iPhone to my monitor and, boom, there’s a computer!

A: Not your iPhone, no. Ubuntu for phones requires a linux core (or “kernel”), and hardware that ably supports that core. Ideally, phone makers will start making phones that have Ubuntu installed from the get-go.

Q: Crud. So it’s going to be a while until I actually use this thing.

A: Ubuntu wants to have some kind of phone at the end of 2013, and anticipates a retail release in early 2014. That said! Ubuntu demonstrated its OS on a re-flashed Galaxy Nexus phone, and will release an image for adventurous Galaxy Nexus owners soon.

Q: In the meantime, what does Ubuntu on a phone look like?

It looks slick, it doesn’t look a ton like other phones, and it looks like it’s still a work in progress. Ubuntu offers this official look at Ubuntu for phones:

And tech site The Verge got some hands-on time with the device.

Q: Where’s the “home” button? Where’s the dock of apps I can pull up?

A: They are nowhere. Everything on Ubuntu for phones is accessed through gestures. Pull from the top to access settings and a main menu. Pull from the left to bring up your list of most-accessed apps. Pull from the right to switch back to the last app you were using. One likely has to see it and feel it to know if it works. All-gesture interfaces are not everybody’s cup of tea. But give Ubuntu credit for aiming into new territory.

Q: What’s the appeal here? I have a phone, I have a computer, and I can usually work between them pretty well.

A: That’s a fair point, but Ubuntu wants you to imagine Ubuntu on all your systems, synchronized, running the same apps, and available to you any time you want. Ubuntu runs on desktops and laptops, eventually on tablets, and right now on TVs. All the major computer makers split up their mobile, desktop, and entertainment center offerings.

Google has Android phones and tablets, Google TV, and Chrome OS on desktops. Apple has iOS for iPhones and iPads, Mac OS X on full systems, and AppleTV for the living room. Microsoft offers Windows 8 on both desktops and portable devices, but splits them up into “RT” and “Pro” versions, and Windows Phone 8 is a bit apart. [Kevin Tofel at GigaOM argues that Ubuntu’s device parity may be its most powerful selling point, at least for businesses and outfits already running Ubuntu on their systems.

For consumers, it’s a tougher sell. I’ve found synchronicity to be a hard sell to someone just looking to make calls and send emails.

Q: And didn’t Palm try to be the elegant, different alternative? That didn’t work out so well.

A: There’s no accounting for taste, but you’re correct. Getting a foothold across the very long chain of design, manufacture, carrier support, retail availability, marketing awareness, and critical reception is nobody’s idea of simple and straightforward.

Q: Bit of a premature announcement, all told.

A: I’d agree. But Ubuntu and its corporate backer, Canonical, play by different rules than the very large makers of hardware. And it’s fun to have a wild card in the race.

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