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06 January 2013

Ubuntu phone OS: a glimpse of the future

I came late to the laptop world. A couple of years into my first job I inherited a battered portable machine from a senior colleague. It weighted over 3 Kg and had a 14 inch screen, but had a profound impact on my relation with computers. It had all the CPU power I needed for my work and in a backpack it could be carried everywhere. Beyond that, at home I could use it to read books, or I could plug it to the Hi-Fi or the TV and use it as a CD/DVD player. Soon I understood that I'd never buy a desktop computer again.

That was some 10 years ago, and this past week I got the same feeling again. With the relatively surprising announcement of the Ubuntu phone OS I'm pretty sure I wont buy a laptop again. A new age in personal computing is dawning and Ubuntu seems to be riding on the crest of the wave. Below the fold is the video announcement of this new OS by Mark Shuttleworth, something that might have a serious impact on personal computing in the following decade.

For most folk what stands out in this video is the Ubuntu interface for phones, that seems to be a bit ahead ahead of what exists presently in the market. Although I do not possess a smartphone, I concur that this interface is truly innovative; but this video reveals something way more relevant: the concept of "superphone". With a 4 core CPU and 2 or more Gb of memory, the high-end palm size devices presently hitting the market appear to have all the processing power required by most mortals, me included. That being the case, what was once a portable phone can be regarded today as a highly compact computer, capable of running every device a user needs in daily life, be it work or entertainment.

This idea is not entirely new, back in 2011, French entrepreneur Grégoire Gentil was already introducing the concept of a smartphone powering both a tablet device and a small laptop computer:

Some hardware makers have also embraced the idea, such as Asus with its PadFone or Motorola with the laptop dock for the Atrix 4G.

But things really started taking shape with the public announcement of the Ubuntu for Android project. A smartphone so powerful that can run both Android and Ubuntu in parallel, using the first for the mundane management of phone calls and the second to provide a full desktop OS when the device is docked to a large screen and keyboard.

The concept of powerphone was perhaps fully developed last Fall with the announcement of the NexPhone research project by NexCrea. Basically a palm sized device that powers all sorts of interfaces expected by XXI century users: a phone, a table touch-screen and a desktop workstation:

NexCrea launched a crowd sourcing campaign to fund the project, that can only be classified as a flop, but nevertheless the concept seems to be spot on. CPU power is something you can carry in your pocket, all the rest are different human interface gadgets of assorted sizes and shapes, conforming to the usage context: office, home, travelling. Now with Ubuntu phone OS all this seems to be one step closer.

Some folk recieved with scepticism Mark Suttleworth's announcement, perhaps too corporate like and too similar to Apple's marketing image for the regular open source geek. But Canonical is not a charity, it is too a commercial company on the market, at this time trying to find the right partner(s) to give body to this concept. The essential is that Ubuntu remains an open source OS, something that so far doesn't seem to be in question. And the innovative interface presented in the corporate video is not just a concept, it really works, and some lucky folk already had the opportunity to test it:

One question that may come about is, with Ubuntu for Android rolling, why produce a new phone OS? Shuttleworth has some compelling arguments for it:
With regard to Android I think we have two strong stories. One is a really crisp user experience that was designed from the beginning with this full vision of convergence in mind. That is something that is really difficult to achieve with Android today. We know many people who have tried to create clamshell devices with Android and there are lots of reasons why they've struggled. We have very high regard for the Android team's capabilities but we have a different vision when it comes to the convergence story.

The feedback we've had from operators and in user testing is that for a crucial portion of the market, which is the [low-end] smartphone market, the users who today just essentially only make calls and send SMS, that Ubuntu offers a much easier and understandable path to grow those users toward using the Web and e-mail on their smartphones. That's very important for operators. At the low end of the market I think we have a real user advantage experience over Android.

At the high end we have the great fortune to be coming to market late, in the sense that Moore's Law has given us at least seven or eight generations of performance improvements since Android came to market and we've been able to take advantage of that. It's the full Linux, it's essentially Unix in your pocket. That means all the security stories that are true of desktop and server Ubuntu are true of the phone, it means the multi-user story is there, it means the application containment story is there, using Linux containers and virtualization. It means the parallel SMP [symmetric multi-processing] multi-core story is there from the beginning. You can do things with Ubuntu devices on the high end that just wouldn't be possible with Android.

Will Ubuntu be the OS of the next personal computer generation? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it will have a relevant role defining how that generation will look like. In any case I'm felling tempted to buy a smartphone, not only so that the AI can play chess a bit faster, but to try out this new piece of innovation.

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