There’s another mobile operating system on the way, people. Canonical has announced that Ubuntu, the popular Linux-based open-source OS normally seen on PCs and TVs, will be coming to smartphones in mobile OS form.
The mobile edition of Ubuntu will use the same kernel and drivers as current Android smartphones, and utilizes native code instead of Java. Both x86 and ARM processors will be supported, and Canonical is also encouraging native and web apps using HTML5.
Ubuntu’s mobile user interface doesn’t look quite like anything else on the market, which is good. Instead of the traditional grid-based UI seen on iOS or Android, it uses all four edges of the screen and relies on swipe gestures to search and open up frequently-used apps and swap between running programs. Voice commands are also said to be included. In this sense, Ubuntu OS seems more reminiscent of a Windows Phone 8/BlackBerry OS/WebOS hybrid rather than a knock-off of their two more successful competitors. Or perhaps more accurately, it seems like Ubuntu on a smartphone, since the OS itself is built to scale on varying devices.
But as solid as it looks, Ubuntu OS is going to need the right hardware to back it up if it wants to succeed. Unfortunately, there are currently no solid plans for proper Ubuntu phones in place, and there are no reports of any partnerships with mobile carriers. Canonical boss Mark Shuttleworth says that he is hoping for Ubuntu-powered phones to arrive by late 2013 or early 2014, however, and there is a build compatible with the Galaxy Nexus that is expected to be downloadable within the next few weeks.
While the new OS is certainly intriguing, its place in an increasingly crowded mobile OS market remains unclear. Canonical is aiming Ubuntu at both entry-level smartphones and “superphones,” saying that the latter will enjoy it for its “unique PC experience” when docked with a keyboard, monitor, and mouse. That sounds more than a little bit like Motorola’s LapDock, but Canoncial has to be hoping that it doesn’t wind up like that piece of ill-fated machinery. Of course, there’s likely to be a whole audience of Linux and open source enthusiasts and members of the enterprise that will likely be onboard from day one.
But with iOS and Android dominating the competition, Windows Phone 8 coming into its own, BlackBerry 10 on the verge of its launch, and smaller systems like MeeGo, Firefox OS, and Tizen trying to make names for themselves, Ubuntu may have the odds stacked against it whenever it hits the mass market. Expect more details to arrive at CES next week.