On Ubuntu for phones

Earlier today, Canonical unveiled Ubuntu for phones. Not an entirely new operating system, but it’s an interface for Ubuntu that’s suited for smart phones. Because it runs the same Ubuntu underneath, it can double as a full pc when docked. There is a shorter one minute trailer too:

The most interesting bit for me is the phone interface. It’s also great to gradually see the various pieces that Ubuntu introduced on the desktop come together on the phone. I’m talking about things like indicators, the messaging menu, web app integration and the HUD. Some of these, like the web app integration, help give Ubuntu a leg up as it’s getting started - Ubuntu on phones can at least have some native-looking-but-not-native apps at the outset. This could be especially important to show those facebook and twitter icons in the launcher and fill in some checkboxes to get people to give the OS a chance, before native apps make their way to the store.

The interface looks clean and crisp, and it coheres with Ubuntu on the desktop. Lag is definitely something that will have to be fixed by the time the phone is released. Even today, lag in high-end Android phones continues to bug me. Back to the interface. There may very well be discoverability issues here, but I disagree that a purely gesture based interface is a loser from the outset. The iPad, despite the presence of a home button, is a great example of a gesture based interface that works. I hardly use the home button on my iPad. And I think the reason why it works is because it lets me form a spatial model in my head as I’m using the device - push the screen up with four fingers to reveal running apps. Pinching with five fingers to minimize the app and return to the home screen is also memorable - the animation of opening an app is the inverse of it.

Of course, creating such a purely gesture based interface (while keeping accessibility in mind) will admittedly require more thought on a device with a smaller screen, but they’re trying. If they can create a well thought out spatial model, the interface will fell less like keyboard shortcuts and such a comparison will be misplaced. Still, many questions around usability remain. And how do the edge swipes work in landscape mode? But let’s not write it off before we have used it.

I wish Canonical shipped more. That’s partly because I am excited and therefore impatient when it comes to this project. But we have also heard a lot about Ubuntu running on phones and tablets for some time now, with little to show for it. Ubuntu for Android, which to me remains an interesting hobby/experiment, still isn’t something that can be downloaded and installed on phones readily. And the Ubuntu phone OS has an even harder road ahead to market. But now we do have a glimpse of a how Canonical plans to bring Ubuntu and Unity to multiple devices and form factors. It’s looking pretty good to me.

(Hands-on videos at The Verge and Engadget)