Canonical is making good on its promise to bring its popular Ubuntu flavor of Linux to a broader range of devices by announcing Ubuntu for Android, a release that will enable a full desktop computing experience on a docked Android smartphone. More than just a virtualized app that behaves like Ubuntu, the developers have melded together the Ubuntu architecture with the Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) AOSP build at the kernel level. The result is, from what we’ve seen, a harmony between the two platforms that could make a lot of sense for demanding mobile users.
To begin the introduction to Ubuntu for Android, let’s start with what Ubuntu for Android isn’t: it’s not a new mobile OS. Rather than try to enter the arena to take on Apple, Microsoft, and Google, Canonical instead chose to build a package that leverages the popularity of Android. This means Canonical is building on top of the world’s fastest growing mobile platform as a value-add. It’s a move that allows Ubuntu to augment the Android experience as opposed to attempt to replace it. This new release is best understood as a convergence between your mobile and desktop computing environments.
In an interview with Canonical CEO Jane Silber, I was able to grasp the driving idea behind Ubuntu for Android in the scheme of Canonical’s overarching vision for Ubuntu. Right now, you most likely carry a smartphone, laptop, and perhaps a tablet device of some kind. Each has a specific purpose in your day, but adds an amount of weight and time to your mobile computing. With the release of this software distribution, Canonical has unveiled that its goal is to narrow down the amount of devices that you carry to just one that will provide the same functionality of all three items mentioned above.
How it works
When you are using your Android phone that has Ubuntu installed as well, it will behave in exactly the same fashion it does now. You will have access to all the Google applications, the Market, your contacts, and the ability to make calls. So in the morning when you grab your phone to check on the emails and SMS messages that came in overnight, nothing will change there. When you arrive to your office however, your phone can become your desktop. You will simply plug the HDMI-enabled device into its dock, and you have a the full Unityexperience on your big screen.
The best part is that you won’t be walled off from the information that you were using when the device was acting like a phone. You have access to all your emails, SMSes, and contacts, as well as the ability to make and receive calls. Additionally, you will be able to do tasks like edit and display pictures, as well as view videos that you have taken with your mobile device.
This is a completely different experience than the closest comparison, Motorola’s Webtop. Your phone is literally your computer, not just acting as a browser that can interact with web applications. I was surprised when I saw the demo — the system was responsive and snappy, and lived up to the hype. However, before you rush to root your Android phone in preparation to install this software package there are some drawbacks.
The first downside is the hardware. Canonical has no plans to manufacture any kind of phone/dock combination made specifically for Ubuntu. For the development of the software the Canonical developers used the Motorola Atrix 2, but moving forward it will only be available straight from the factory — it won’t be able to be installed on existing handsets. Furthermore, Ubuntu on Android is limited to handsets with HDMI out. In addition, the hardware requirements to run this flavor of Ubuntu relegates it to the higher end of the smartphone spectrum. You will need a dual- or quad-core ARM processor with at least 512MB of memory installed. x86 was mentioned as being possible, but for the time being ARM is the focus. Realistically, Ubuntu for Android has been developed for future handsets that are going to have the horsepower to push everything the software is going to require.
The other problem is that while Canonical is pushing the build to hardware manufacturers and mobile carriers, it has no plans to release it to the general public for independent development. This means that you won’t see a CyanogenMod ROM with this functionality built into it. While Ubuntu is open source, Canonical plans to control the release of this version. It’s possible that, given the ingenuity of Android users, one day there will be a leaked build, but such a thing wouldn’t be endorsed by the company.
Those things aside, it’s hard not too like this move by Canonical. When I first heard about Ubuntu on a mobile device I was very skeptical since putting a desktop experience on such a small screen has been tried before and has failed. But the fact that this is going to give me a way to carry around a full-fledged computing experience in my pocket instead of a backpack is a win in my book.
Read more at Ubuntu — and be ready for Mobile World Congress next week, where Ubuntu for Android should be on display