Ubuntu for phones: A Q&A explainer

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

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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.

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