Ubuntu: One OS, one interface, all devices

Ubuntu: One OS, one interface, all devices

Summary: Canonical believes that Ubuntu can be one operating system and Unity the one interface you need for your PC, your smartphone, and your tablet. Here's how they'll do it.

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For years, Ubuntu and its parent company Canonical has been pursuing a single dream: One operating system and one interface, Unity, for PCs, tablets, and smartphones. That dream is now becoming a reality.

Unity_design_vision
Say hello to Canonical's Unity interface vision for PCs, smartphones, and tablets.

The recent headlines have been about Canonical's crowd-sourcing of its hybrid smartphone/PC, Ubuntu Edge, but Canonical's plan of one integrated operating system and interface for all platforms predates it by years. While Unity is known better as an easy-to-use Linux desktop interface for beginners, Canonical has been aiming Unity at the smartphone and tablet market since it was introduced in October 2010.

It's only now that this plan is coming into focus for those who don't follow Ubuntu like a hawk. As Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and Ubuntu's founder said at OSCon, the major open-source convention held in Portland, OR, "Convergence is the core story. Each device is great, but they should be part of one family. On any device you'll know what you're doing. One device should be able to give you all the experiences you can get from any one of them."

That's easy to say, but how do you do that? Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's community manager, explained how Canonical is making this happen at an OSCon session.

Bacon said, "Unity is all about getting rid of the computer. Its focus is helping users focus on content."

That's one reason why Unity has proven so unpopular with Linux power-users. For these users it's all about the power to customize the operating system and interface at as low-a-level as possible for the job at hand. That is not how ordinary people see an operating system and it's a major reason why Ubuntu Unity is more popular with new users.

What does Bacon mean exactly? Well, for starters, the interface should "show controls only when necessary and those controls should be responsive to what you're doing at the time." For example, if you're watching a video, the only visible controls should be ones such as pause, fast-forward, and rewind. Even then, these controls should only be visible when you want them.

Next, says Bacon, "Unity uses the same patterns across different devices. We want to make sure that those patterns can be used by our app developers across platforms." In other words, when you write an app, whether you use Ubuntu's native Qt Modeling Language (QML) or HTML5 for its interface, it's going to look and act the same no matter where it's running.

Bacon continued, the idea is to "focus on elegance. We don't want to clutter it up with buttons and widgets. We want beautiful, elegant devices." For example, "on a smartphone or tablet, you only need three buttons—power and audio up and down and you really don't need the volume controls."

Instead of buttons or on-screen icons, Unity uses the edges of the display. Specifically, the top of the screen is used for indicators and settings . The left edge holds the Launcher, which is a bar of icons that's similar to the Mac OS X dock. On the bottom edge you'll find the controls for the app that's currently on the screen. Finally, the right edge gives you access to multi-tasking functionality. To access any of them from a touchscreen you simply swipe from the edge to the display's center. With a mouse, you move to the edge of the screen, click, and pull to the center of the screen.

You see the point? It all looks and works the same regardless of the platform.

To help developers work with this Ubuntu version provides not just a software developer kit (SDK) but an app design guide as well. In addition, Ubuntu provides its own app font set, global patterns to make sure all apps behave consistently, and design building blocks to help make certain all your apps look like they're all part of the Unity family.

Besides providing a consistent look and feel for Ubuntu users, Bacon also said the idea is to avoid the kind of interface fragmentation that's afflicted Android. "My wife and I both had Android phones and they gave us two entirely different experiences," said Bacon. "We're avoiding that."

Can Canonical pull this off? Well, technically, they already have. The bigger question is: "Will the device vendors and carriers let them do it?" According to Bacon, they will. "They can have branding designs and their own selection of apps in the Launcher, but the edge interface look and work will remain the same."

The ultimate question, of course, is will you buy into this? Well, you'll get your chance. The US's biggest phone carrier, Verizon, will be offering Ubuntu smartphones and there's a carrier-group of international phone carriers that are also backing Ubuntu.

I'd say Ubuntu has a decent shot at becoming the number three mobile OS vendor after Android and iOS. And, who knows, it may finally get more of a share of the desktop operating system world since Windows 8 is still stumbling.

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Topics: Mobility, Linux, Mobile OS, Open Source, Software Development, Ubuntu

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170 comments
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  • A billion miles behind windows...

    I have Ubuntu 12.x running on hyper-v...though its very stable, its a billion miles behind Windows in term of UI and ease of doing things...
    OwlllllllNet
    • A billion miles behind windows...

      I (and the tech rep that was demo'ing the product and constantly getting hung up) find the Windows 8 interface horribly difficult to use. But whatever floats your boat. Unless you use Windows, in which case whatever Redmond decides.
      hwttdz
      • Win8 IU is a delight

        Simplicity in design, simplicity in use...
        Owllllll!Net
        • Who, who who

          asked you about Windows8?

          Obviously you are just trolling an article that is about Ubuntu Touch. Back to Redmond, troll...
          DancesWithTrolls
      • Your an absolute liar or the worlds most incompitent IT

        What a fantastic attempt to be the worlds slyest liar.

        A grade school child could make Windows 8 soar in performance.

        Your an embarrassingly crappy liar hwttdz, not a sly one. You stink. If you cant make Windows 8 work like a wizard, GTFO of IT because your a moron and a hazard of the most pompous kind who has no business discussing anything more than the last time he took a crap.

        Moron.
        Cayble
    • Doing what things?

      "Windows" things? I have been using linux exclusively at work for the last 4 years Administration windows and well as other linux servers becasue frankly its far more useful to me then Windows on my workstation. if it weren't for windows being a superior gaming platform i would run linux at home on all my machines as well.
      ammohunt
    • A billion miles behind

      I agree. I'd use Ubuntu if it supported the hardware I have. Scanner? No. TV card? No. Camera? No. On my laptop, I tried Ubuntu through several releases. Now, I have sticky notes on each CD saying what does and doesn't work on each. Things like, "networking works, sound doesn't." "Sound works, network doesn't." "Network works, sound doesn't work, won't shut down." On and on it goes. When Unity came along, I gave up. Now I run only Windows and haven't had any problems. Shut down, sound, video, networking, camera, TV card, scanner, and anything else I plug into my computer works fine.
      kyllod@...
      • Not my experience at all

        I have some decidedly weird hardware and I have run Xubuntu on all of it without issue. In fact, to my annoyance, when I loaded Windows7 onto my computer, my scanner stopped working. Drivers only available for XP. I'm glad Epson looks after its drivers because Windows7 didn't like my printer either. And my old video capture card? Windows7 doesn't handle it either.

        But with Xubuntu, all have worked fine.
        mheartwood
        • You are glad Epson looked after their drivers because Microsoft did not?

          I always believed it was Epson who was supposed to look after the drivers for their own hardware, not the OS manufacturer.
          John Zern
          • My favorite feature of Linux?

            The way all drivers are compiled into the kernel.

            What a fantastic architecture choice. /s
            toddbottom3
          • You obviously haven't looked recently.

            There are only 3 drivers built in - keyboard, a base video, and a ramdisk.

            Once the kernel boots (the kernel + initrd are loaded by the boot loader), the kernel builds a ramdisk from the initrd (which is a compressed archive of the ramdisk). After that, it does a machine inventory, and then loads drivers immediately needed - usually disk controllers, but can include USB+disks. After that it mounts the root filesystem, then switches to using the root - and reclaims the memory used for the ramdisk.

            So adding drivers is relatively trivial. Just put the binary in the right place on disk, which is the responsibility of the distribution.

            The only time some additional complexity is if the driver is needed to mount the root filesystem... and then it calls for updating the initrd file. Doing that is also the responsibility of the distribution.
            jessepollard
          • Re: The way all drivers are compiled into the kernel.

            What drivers?

            Are you sure Toddy, that you ever know what you are talking about?
            danbi
        • not saying I don't belive you

          But my experience has been the other way round, common things have had drivers issues, I guees maybe your peripherals came from a geek store
          paulskUK
        • My experience with Xubuntu is similar...

          I have had no hardware issues installing Xubuntu on a Dell XPS desktop and 2 Acer notebooks.
          The desktop came with Vista. The laptops both came with Windows 7. Try as I might, and I did- I could not for the life of me ever get the wifi connected in W7. W7 would not connect unless it was the only computer on the network. I never could figure it out.
          I booted up Xubuntu, put in my network password and that was it. I was connected in seconds with no bullcrap to deal with. And this is with a problematic Broadcom wifi chip.
          Yes, I've had to persevere, and learn new stuff- and even use the dreaded CLI a couple of times- but they couldn't pay me to go back to using Windows.
          Using Linux and open source has given me freedom, less headaches, less bullcrap like "activation" to deal with, and left more money in my wallet too. If I want to swap out a hard drive I don't have to call M$ begging for a new Windows key.
          I'm lovin it, and I'm sticking with it. And if I can do it anybody can. :-)
          mrsfixit
      • kyllod@...

        TOTAL MAFIASOFT FUD!
        kyllod@... A pack of lies! I've plugged in all of the devices you mentioned in your shill into Ubuntu and they all work plug and play.

        So quit telling lies and FUD. enjoy your Redmond Shill paycheck until the REORG aka Downsizing in Redmond sends your inevitable pink slip which is on the way soon!
        ITJohnguru
      • Can't reproduce that

        I have a huge range of computers. Ubuntu runs everywhere great and peripheral devices are detected where I even can't get longer Windows drivers for. I am a very happy Ubuntu user and I am keen to see what will happen when Linux gets more momentum also on the desktop.
        hengels
      • Tired old MS FUD

        Unlike Windows where you have to find the Cds or hunt down drivers on-line to setup your devices most all modern Linux distros have them in the install image and things just work from the start-up of a new OS install.
        DancesWithTrolls
    • OwlllllllNet Balmer's Shill of course

      A billion miles behind windows?...

      So then tell me why Sesame Street Crayola 8 is a TOTAL DISASTER on every device: MicroKlunk Shablets, Reboot-Phones & Smudge your PC & Laptops?

      How much is Redmond paying you a day to write these shills?
      ITJohnguru
      • Sales determine everything

        Unless we talk about the low Linux desktop presence, then it is all about excuses.
        Michael Alan Goff
      • And's who's puppet are you?

        You spend an awful lot of time here repeating the words of cloggedbottom, seanconnery, and a few others.

        You even take and use their very names for products.

        It's like you guys are all of one mind.
        William Farrel