Ubuntu for phones makes its official debut

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It's been close to a year since Canonical announced Ubuntu for Android, the smartphone version of its popular Linux distribution that's designed to launch the full Ubuntu desktop when an Android phone is docked with a keyboard and monitor.

Last fall the concept came to light again with a crowdfunding effort to create the Ubuntu-based NexPhone, but otherwise not much more has been heard about it.

The NexPhone campaign has since expired after raising only $3,829 of its $950,000 goal, but on Wednesday Canonical held a widely promoted event to launch a new mobile operating system interface officially.

Targeting two mobile segments

“Canonical today announced a distinctive smartphone interface for its popular operating system, Ubuntu, using all four edges of the screen for a more immersive experience,” the company said.

The new software is aimed at two core mobile segments, Canonical noted. One is the “high-end superphone,” and the other is the entry-level basic smartphone.

“We expect Ubuntu to be popular in the enterprise market, enabling customers to provision a single secure device for all PC, thin client, and phone functions,” explained Canonical CEO Jane Silber. “We also see an opportunity in basic smartphones that are used for the phone, SMS, web, and email, where Ubuntu outperforms thanks to its native core apps and stylish presentation.”

All four edges

Among the features offered by the new Ubuntu interface is the use of thumb gestures from all four edges of the screen so as to help users find content and switch among apps more quickly than they can on other phones.

Controls appear only when the user wants them, Canonical said, and both voice and text commands are available in any application. The software supports both native and Web or HTML5 apps.

ARM and x86 processors are both supported by the new interface, which is built around the existing Android kernel and drivers but does not use a Java virtual machine.

Canonical is offering numerous customization options for partner apps, content, and services, and operators and OEMs can easily add their own branded offerings, it says.

In addition to its launch event in London today, Canonical will be on hand with the new technology at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas next week. The video below outlines the concept in more detail; Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth's lengthier explanation is available on YouTube.

Uncertain demand

The software will first appear in downloadable form for the Galaxy Nexus, but there are apparently not yet any actual devices in the works or operators signed up. The first Ubuntu phones will appear in late 2013 starting in Western Europe, Canonical says. A dual-core Cortex A9 running at 1GHz and 512MB RAM are the basic requirements for any device.

It's certainly exciting to see the popular Ubuntu Linux expanding its reach even further, and I look forward to watching the progress of this new software.

At the same time, it's difficult not to be at least a bit concerned by the fate of the NexPhone—not to mention Motorola's Atrix 4G, which found only lukewarm success for the docking concept.

Particularly confusing, meanwhile, is that this new entry is apparently different from Ubuntu for Android.

In any case, do consumers really want the power of the desktop on their mobile devices? Is Ubuntu too late to the mobile game? I can't help but wonder. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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