We've been waiting for the first developer preview of Ubuntu Touch for a while now. After a bit of an odd start, today is the day we finally get to try it ourselves. As a long-time Linux user on the desktop (I've even installed Ubuntu 12.10 to prepare) I'm excited, and I know plenty of you folks are, as well. We're going to take a quick look at what Canonical is offering up today, talk a bit about their plans for Ubuntu, and even do a little bit of blogger speculation about it's future.
The most important thing to remember is that this is just a preview, meant for enthusiasts and aspiring developers. We're going to install it to play with (of course) but there's plenty that isn't working yet. The final version is still a ways off, so we can't really draw solid conclusions from what we're seeing today.
What we can do, is have fun trying it. Hit the break to see the how and why.
What Android devices can run Ubuntu Touch?
Right now, Ubuntu Touch is only available on recent Nexus devices. Specifically, we're talking about:
- Galaxy Nexus (maguro)
- Nexus 4 (mako)
- Nexus 7 (grouper)
- Nexus 10 (manta)
Installing Ubuntu Touch on your Android device
Installation is fairly easy. Your phone or tablet gets wiped, so prepare for that in whatever way you're comfortable with. The official method of installation requires you to be running Ubuntu. Other unofficial methods will be created, but using Ubuntu for this and the installer is probably the way to go, as it's easy to update the whole thing when Canonical puts out a new installer. Full directions are here, but the short version goes like this:
- Add repository to your Ubuntu desktop installation
- Unlock your Nexus device
- Back up any files that are important
- Connect the device and enable USB debugging
- Run the command to flash the images
To get back to Android, you simply flash the factory images provided by Google and restore data you backed up.
So, How is it?
There's a lot here that isn't quite ready for prime time -- we warned you that this was a developer preview. Things like your contacts and media are populated with thumbnails of things and people you know nothing about, and all those apps are just links to a website for the most part. It does give us a look at how things are going to work, and that's the important part.
There are also a bunch of apps that aren't there yet. There is no music player, no IM client, and no e-mail client to be seen. The omission of those three makes this a non-starter for daily use to many of us, so installation of this version is more about seeing and getting a feel of the overall experience. Having said that, the phone app, SMS app, web browser, and camera/gallery apps are included and functional. There's no way to do things like set an APN or change the time and date, and other than Wifi you will have no data connection.
The biggest thing to take away from this is how well it performs, and how far Canonical is with the platform. With almost a full year to continue development, we think they will deliver a polished, complete experience.
Canonical has big plans for Ubuntu. They also seem to understand their own limitations and how to work with partners to overcome them. I spent a while on a conference call with Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, and he talked a good bit about the present and the future of Ubuntu, and why it's going to matter.
When can we get one?
The thing that most people want to know is when we're going to see new devices running Ubuntu Touch, and when we'll have a full, feature-complete version to install on our own devices. According to Shuttleworth, everything is still on track and going according to plan. By the end of 2013, devices running Ubuntu Touch will be released to carrier partners for vetting, and a release to the world-at-large is scheduled for the first quarter of 2014. I still think that's too late, but the folks at Canonical are pleased wit the progress.
For those of us who aren't looking for a new device and will install Ubuntu on our own unlocked phone or tablet, the 14.04 LTS release will be a single binary image that installs on four different device types -- traditional computers and laptops, tablets, phones, and televisions. The core of the OS will be exactly the same from device to device, and only the user interface will change. As an example of how this convergence will work, imagine a smart phone that docks into a tablet, which in turn docks into a keyboard, and has an IR port to trigger a television interface. Canonical is really pushing the convergence thing. It looks great in theory, but hardware costs will be key to its adoption. Motorola can teach them a thing or two about that.
Whether we like it or not, a platform in today's competitive mobile space is defined by its app catalog. Anyone who uses Ubuntu on the desktop can tell you that there are a lot of programs one can install, but many notable ones are missing. Ubuntu plans to address this with a great set of developer tools. Look for a post on that soon -- they're great and app development seems very easy. In addition, they've made it easy for Android and BlackBerry developers to use their existing code to build native Ubuntu apps.
The great news is that apps will be universal. One binary will work on the desktop, your phone, your tablet, and your TV. This is much like the situation in Android, and like Android, success will depend on developers correctly coding apps to display as designed on the various form factors. A big plus here for Canonical is that everyone building Android phones or doing serious application development for them is already using Ubuntu, as it's the recommended platform for development. Big names in gaming, like Valve and Unity are already on board.
Being open might mean changes
Shuttleworth made a point of mentioning that they were in talks with device manufacturers, and "top tier" carriers in North America, Europe, and China about getting Ubuntu-driven products into the mobile market. We've seen what carriers and OEMs do to Android, and Ubuntu is an open-source project that's ripe for the same treatment. According to Shuttleworth, They have "had fairly substantial conversations with handset manufacturers and carriers, and none of them have indicated a desire to essentially recreate the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem". We hope the carriers and OEMs really mean this, but a quick look at the Android device line-up from each makes me skeptical.
There's also a chance that a company like Amazon can get in on the action, as Canonical has no plans to lock the system into any one application "store". Canonical wants users to be able to add their own ppas (entities that distribute packages for installation), but of course a lot of this will be at the whim of the carrier partners. This means anyone would be free to create their own app store, where apps can be downloaded and updated over the air. In the long run, this would be a good thing for the platform, even if it means a little less revenue for Canonical at first.
I think there is a lot of room for Ubuntu in the mobile space, especially on tablets. There's still a lot of work to be done here, but the parts that are fully functional work well and are pleasant to the eye. That's important, as first impressions mean a lot in the tight mobile race. The folks at Canonical seem to understand what they need to do, and have the enthusiasm of a whole community behind them at the moment. If they can keep this level of interest and get some marketing from OEM and carrier partners, there's a good chance for success here.
One thing that's for sure is that Canonical is going to need a fanbase for Ubuntu touch at least as big and as active as the one they have for the desktop. The whole thing -- especially on a tablet -- is just begging for some solid native apps. I'm keeping it on my Nexus 10 for a while to follow the progress, but most people will end up uninstalling this. Canonical needs to be able to lure them back at each step in the process to keep them interested.