MWC 2013: Various brands overview
Ubuntu for smartphones and tablets overview and hands-on
At the start of 2013, Canonical, the people behind Ubuntu for PCs announced they are extending their efforts to develop a smartphone OS. Later, they also revealed that they are ready to show the world Ubuntu for tablets, as well.
They have already managed to make Ubuntu available for Nexus devices at the moment (Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4 and Nexus 10) in the form of a flashable ROM, so the OS can show its multitasking prowess and user-friendly interface here at the Mobile World Congress.
At the Ubuntu booth we bumped into the friendly design team behind Ubuntu for smartphones and tablets, and they were kind enough to tell us more about the user experience and how Ubuntu is different (and better) from the big dogs in the smartphone game.
An OS that wants to be touched
Ubuntu for smartphones is an entirely touch-based operating system - physical buttons are not involved here at all (save for the lock and volume rocker buttons). This means that it makes use of the entire Nexus 4 screen, while Android reserves a bar for virtual back, menu and task switcher.
The OS utilizes the four edges very well, making up for the lack of virtual buttons. Swiping from the left edge makes a list of your favorite apps appear. Ubuntu reckons that even you use hundreds of apps, you wouldn't put them all on that bar, since it's a place only for your favorite ones.
The list can be accessed even when the device is locked, and there's an "view all apps" button on the bottom of it. A full swipe from the left edge across the whole screen takes you to the full list of apps on the phone.
A swipe from the top unveils the settings menu. However, you can add sideways swipes to go straight into the different settings menus: Wi-Fi, volume, Bluetooth, etc. You can do that without interrupting the task carrier out in your currently active windows.
Swiping from the bottom of the screen unveils the app-specific options and additional actions. The right edge of the display is used to access the apps that have recently been opened. Think of it as an alternative to the Windows Alt+Tab shortcut, if you will.
You can see how Ubuntu runs on the LG Nexus 4 in the user interface overview we've shot below with Ubuntu's head of design Ivo Weevers.
As you probably noticed, everything about the Ubuntu platform is very fluid. According to the dev team the reason is Ubuntu doesn't rely on the Java runtime engine. Instead, the Linux distribution communicates directly with the drivers on the smartphone making everything run without a single hiccup.
As for the tablet variety of Ubuntu, it uses all the same principles as its smartphone version. There are some differences, though.
Since tablets are primarily used at home by more than one person, there is multi-user support. Each user has a password and a customized experience once logged in.
Here's a dedicated video showcasing the Ubuntu experience on a tablet.
Currently, Canonical has launched images you can flash on the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 10 and Nexus 4. It's a bit fiddly, but there's an official step-by-step guide on how to make the Ubuntu OS run on the aforementioned devices.
Just like any other mobile OS out there, the app ecosystem is a vital aspect of its survival in this super competitive market. As such, Ubuntu prides itself for relying on traditional programming languages, that many developers are fond of. Additionally, it's basically Linux underneath, so many of the now existing apps will, at least on paper, only need an UI overhaul to work on Ubuntu smartphones and tablets.
As of the time of writing, Ubuntu is still in alpha. Canonical promises devices running the OS to hit at the end of the year. Our honest opinion? Ubuntu for smartphones and tablets is going to be worth the wait. Moreover, if the team plays its card right it might actually make an impact.