Ubuntu phone - the first truly unified platform?

The Ubuntu phone OS has been announced, replacing the old "Ubuntu for Android" initiative that seems to have been all but abandoned. Frankly I'm not surprised that Ubuntu for Android didn't gain much traction, as the concept had a number of limitations that made it a burden instead of adding value. But the Ubuntu phone OS is another story.

From the information made available in the Canonical press release, it seems that the Ubuntu phone OS is a fully fledged version of Ubuntu that can be installed directly onto a smartphone. It is a single set of apps and single configuration that presents a tailored interface depending on whether your phone is docked or standalone.

It's no stretch to say that the current computing experience provided across desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones is disjointed at best. What you do on a particular device is still determined more by the OS it is running and the configuration that you have taken the time to (re)implement than the practicalities of the device itself. Try to do you everyday tasks on a portable device (even with a dock) and you'll quickly find that compatibility between common file formats is spotty, access to corporate networks is difficult,  most of the apps you use for work can not be installed on your portable devices, and even synchronising common settings like bookmarks and passwords is tiresome.

The real value of a platform like the Ubuntu phone OS is not so much that it allows you to have one device, but that it allows you to have one configuration. Whether you are on the go or at your desk, everything is consistent: the data you access; the apps you use; the toolbars, icon placements, keyboard shortcuts, templates, favourites and shortcuts you have configured in your apps and the commands you run are the same.

I'm not saying that all your favourite Linux apps will be a pleasure to use on a smartphone interface. Just because you can install LibreOffice, GIMP or Eclipse doesn't mean you'll be able to use them without a keyboard, mouse and a large screen. But the issue here is more that it is simply not practical to type up a document, edit some graphics or do some development on a smartphone rather than the fact that the word processing app on your phone is not compatible with your document's format, that it can not access the network drive that contains the image you want to edit, or that a compiler simply does not exist.

Finally we are getting to a point where the physical limitations of the device you are using become the primary factor in deciding what you want to do on the device. This has been one of the selling points behind Windows 8, although I don't expect to see Windows 8 (not phone or RT) running on a smartphone any time soon.

For the Ubuntu phone OS to be a roaring success it does need to do a couple of things:

  1. Provide images for current phone hardware. Canonical needs to exploit the legion of fans it has and the phones and tablets they already own to get a grassroots movement started. Some kind of a website where you can register interest in the Ubuntu phone OS and the mobile hardware you already have would be a great start.
  2. Allow Android apps to run in Ubuntu. Bluestacks proved that it can be done on Windows, and Canonical was working on something similar (although the effort appears to have been abandoned).
  3. Promote touch friendly apps in the Ubuntu marketplace.
Canonical has a real opportunity with the Ubuntu phone OS to provide a genuinely unified experience, and I for one look forward to seeing it in action.
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