Canonical Unveils Ubuntu For Tablets, Developer Preview Available For Nexus Devices On Thursday

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Hot on the heels of the announcement of Ubuntu on phones comes Canonical’s latest announcement: Ubuntu on tablets. This is, in many ways, a no-brainer: Android and iOS have already demonstrated that the same OS can work on both form factors. But the story is a little more interesting when you consider what Ubuntu offers. And developers can start playing with it on Thursday.

I spoke with Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu project and currently VP of Products at Canonical, about Ubuntu for tablets and phones. He was noticeably excited about the news, and reiterated several times that this will be “one Ubuntu” on multiple platforms: desktops, phones, and tablets. This has a number of very interesting ramifications.

While it’s the same distribution codebase, each platform uses a Linux kernel tailored for the specifics of the target hardware. This puts Ubuntu in a class by itself when compared to other multi-device strategies. iOS and Android are well suited for handsets, but don’t perform well — if at all — in traditional desktop environments. Even Microsoft’s efforts aren’t unified, what with Windows Phone, Windows Mobile, Windows RT, etc. Apps written for Ubuntu desktops will run on Ubuntu phones and tablets.

Apps written for Ubuntu desktops will run on Ubuntu phones and tablets.

Canonical is aggressively embracing the post-PC culture, and are driving computing convergence with a coherent “multi-screen” strategy. Your Ubuntu tablet works like most other tablets when you’re out and about, save for the fact that it’s running Ubuntu. But connect a monitor, keyboard and mouse and you suddenly have the traditional desktop experience, with a full window manager and multiple windows of concurrently running apps. Interact with your apps through mouseclicks. Undock (or disconnect the peripherals), and resume interacting with your applications using touch controls.

An unexpectedly interesting aspect of Ubuntu on phones is that developers with touch-enabled desktops can test out their mobile applications right from their desktop. The touch controls of Ubuntu mobile apps will work on touch-enabled desktop PCs, greatly streamlining the development and debugging process. Shuttleworth says “the experience is perfect.”

To me, the greatest offering of Ubuntu for tablets is a true multi-user experience, baked into the core OS. My family has an iPad, an original Amazon Kindle, and a Nexus 7. Coordinating which accounts to use to purchase apps, and managing the arrangement of apps on these devices is proving to be more cumbersome than we’d like. Ubuntu for tablets offers a true multi-user experience.

I asked Shuttleworth if they’d tackled how to handle user quotas, and administrator privileges, and all the other thorny issues that arise in shared-use environments. He admitted that they have not, yet. “But we have 30 years of UNIX history on which to build,” he added, “so I don’t see these problems as being anything other than implementation details.” Shuttleworth also shared that a number of OEMs have been in talks with Canonical specifically about the multi-user features. This feature is of great interest to military and medical environments particularly.

Finally, because Ubuntu on tablets is “just Ubuntu,” it means that all of Canonical’s management tools for Ubuntu systems already work. Corporate users of Canonical’s Landscape service can manage Ubuntu tablets alongside their fleet of desktops and servers. According to Shuttleworth, none of their competitors have a compelling enterprise story to tell.

According to Shuttleworth, none of their competitors have a compelling enterprise story to tell.

So what, exactly, will Canonical be releasing on Thursday in the “Developer Preview”? Open source code for Nexus phones and tablets: Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. It probably won’t take too long for folks to get this installed onto non-Nexus devices, too. Most stuff should work, with a few rough edges. Cameras, the browser, photo and video galleries, media player with hardware offload, notepad. All the standard stuff.

The Developer Preview will not be without bugs, of course. Notably, according to Shuttleworth, this release makes no effort to prevent device overload from too many apps running at once. Whereas most smartphones employ a number of tricks to put background apps in various stages of sleep, Ubuntu will not do so at this time.

Ubuntu for tablets offers an interesting multi-tasking experience. Applications will present their capabilities to the OS, such as “I’m a phone app” or “I’m a desktop app.” Phone apps can run in what Shuttleworth calls the “side stage”, and can run split-screen with other phone apps or desktop apps. Some obvious examples are Skype or Twitter or Facebook while you’re browsing the web or watching a movie.

Indeed, Shuttleworth shared that in their user testing thus far, people were absolutely delighted to see how all of this works. “If you ask someone ‘Would you like to multi-task?’ they don’t really know how to answer,” he said. “But if you ask them if they’d like to send a tweet while watching a movie, they know exactly what you mean.” Users expected to lose the playback of their movie when they launched Twitter. Instead, it opens up in the “side stage” and works flawlessly, all while the movie continues to play. Samsung featured similar functionality in their Galaxy S3 commercial; but Ubuntu is taking this functionality to a new level.

As for why release Ubuntu for tablets now, Shuttleworth opined that the typical open source mantra of “release early, release often” can be a curse in both ways: if you release too soon you have nothing but vaporware; but if you release too late you lose momentum and attention. Now, he feels, is the proper time to release Ubuntu for phones and tablets. Developers can start digging in, and the general public can start salivating.

The October release of Ubuntu (13.10) will have the smartphone code complete, says Shuttleworth, which lines up pretty nicely with Canonical’s comments at CES earlier this year. Shuttleworth was quick to point out that regulatory certifications and factory processes take time, so in reality we shouldn’t expect hardware before Q1 2014. After that, software updates from Ubuntu will follow their established cadence.

This release, says Shuttleworth, is intended to drive three threads of activity. First, it allows developers to start enjoying the native experience. While the Ubuntu mobile SDK is available right now, you can’t really test it on a phone. Thursday’s release remedies that.

Second, the people inside the Ubuntu community are excited about expanding the community umbrella to cover new platforms. This goes beyond just building apps or getting more poeple to use Ubuntu. It includes things like governance and steering or Ubuntu initiatives.

The initial release is targeted at the Nexus line of hardware

And finally, there’s hardware testing. The initial release is targeted at the Nexus line of hardware, but as the third-party ROM market for other devices clearly shows, there are a lot of clever people out there shoe-horning Android onto all kinds of devices. Thursday’s Developer Preview will allow major electronics companies and exuberant enthusiasts alike the opportunity to start playing with Ubuntu on their preferred harware.

Shuttleworth went on to share that there are three legs to a successful launch: silicon, manufacturing, and carriers. He stated that Canonical has a silicon partner now, but official news of who that is won’t be made until March. On the manufacturing side, “partners have expressed interest,” he told me, but didn’t elaborate too much. And as for carriers, he said that Canonical is “having good conversations with the #1 and #2 carriers in North America, Europe and China.”

Obviously any such conversations — for silicon, manufacturing, or carriers — are complex with multiple stakeholders. These kinds of negotiations take time to play out. All of this drives home the likelihood that it’ll be 2014 before we start seeing real Ubuntu devices.

Shuttleworth hinted that we might expect the first Ubuntu device to be a high-end luxury smartphone.

The upshot of all of this is that Ubuntu will be available for Nexus devices this week. Hacker culture being what it is, I’d expect additional devices to be supported by the end of next week. We may see official hardware announcements toward the end of this year, but I’d be really surprised if we saw a new dedicated device for Ubuntu available for purchase before 2014.