Canonical reveals Ubuntu tablet plans

As expected, Canonical has announced their plans for Ubuntu on tablets as well as the signing of a deal with a major mobile silicon provider to provide Ubuntu smartphone and tablet chips.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

In London, Canonical, Ubuntu Linux’s parent company, revealed its tablet interface. This, according to the company, is its "next step towards one unified family of experiences for personal computing on phones, tablets, PCs and TVs."

Ubuntu is on its way to tablets.

"Multi-tasking productivity meets elegance and rigorous security in our tablet experience," said Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and Canonical in a press call. “Our family of interfaces now scales across all screens, so your phone can provide tablet, PC and TV experiences when you dock it. That's unique to Ubuntu and it's the future of personal computing."

More precisely, as Shuttleworth told me yesterday, this universal Ubuntu Linux for all platforms is a goal that  Canonical and its partners are working toward -- and not one they've already reached. That said, from a user's viewpoint, the Ubuntu Unity interface on the soon to be released developer beta will look the same on all its platforms.

This new  tablets and smartphones focus does not mean that Ubuntu will be moving away the desktop -- even though the Linux destkop has not so far proven  profitable for Canonical. Shuttleworth said that the mobile devices will increase the presence of Ubuntu in the market and, in turn, make Ubuntu more attractive to desktop users. 

The full release, for users, will be available in Ubuntu 13.10 in October. The full, ready-for-anyone version will be out in Ubuntu 14.04 in April 2014. Shuttleworth also said in today's conference call that Canonical has just signed a deal with "a very large supplier of silicon to mobile industry [who] will be optimizing Ubuntu on their chips." Further details on this partnership will be revealed at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February.

In addition, Shuttleworth said that major phone carriers in the North America, Europe and China will be shipping Ubuntu phones in 2014.

What will Ubuntu bring to the tablet that Apple's iOS and Google's Android don't? Canonical makes the following claims:

  • Unique 'side stage' multi-tasking puts phone and tablet apps on a single tablet screen
  • Secure enterprise tablets: with full disk encryption, multiple secure user accounts and standard management tool that covers Ubuntu server, PC and touch.
  • Real multitasking: Uniquely, Ubuntu allows a phone app on the screen at the same time as a tablet app. The Ubuntu side stage was invented both to enable efficient multitasking and to improve the usability of phone apps on tablets.
  • Secure multi-user: Multiple accounts on one tablet with full encryption for personal data, combined with the trusted Ubuntu security model that is widely used in banks, governments and sensitive environments, making it ideal for work and family use.
  • Voice controlled HUD productivity: The Heads-Up Display, unique to Ubuntu, makes it fast and easy to do complex things on touch devices, and transforms touch interfaces for rich applications, bringing all the power of the PC to your tablet. 
  • Edge magic for cleaner apps: Screen edges are used for navigation between apps, settings and controls. That makes for less clutter, more content, and sleeker hardware. No physical or soft buttons are required. It’s pure touch elegance
  • Content focus: Media is neatly presented on the customizable home screen, which can search hundreds of sources. Perfect for carriers and content owners that want to highlight their own content, while still providing access to a global catalog.
  • Program convergence: Users won't need to worry about which version they'll run on a device. A Ubuntu program will run on all Ubuntu platforms
  • Full convergence: The tablet interface is presented by exactly the same OS and code that provides the phone, PC and TV interfaces, enabling true device convergence. Ubuntu is uniquely designed to scale smoothly across all form factors.
  • Unique convergence across all four form factors: a phone can provide tablet, TV and PC interfaces when docked to the appropriate screen / keyboard / remote.

It's the last two points that I see having the potential to make Ubuntu stand out above its established smartphone and tablet competitors. Shuttleworth said that convergence was "at the heart of Ubuntu" moving forward.

As for the tablet itself, Oren Horev, lead Ubuntu tablet experience designer, said in a statement: "The Ubuntu tablet interface supports screen sizes from 6 inches to 20 inches and resolutions from 100 to 450 PPI. The tablet fits perfectly between phone and PC in the Ubuntu family. Not only do we integrate phone apps in a distinctive way, we shift from tablet to PC very smoothly in convergence devices.”

In another interesting shift, Ubuntu is making a direct appeal to Windows users, but not as a substitute for Windows. Instead, the company claims that "on high end silicon (high-end meaning at least an Intel Arom processor), Ubuntu offers a full PC experience when the tablet is docked to a keyboard, with access to remote Windows applications over standard protocols from Microsoft, Citrix, VMWare and Wyse."

In a statement, Stephane Verdy, who leads enterprise desktop and thin client products at Canonical, said, “An Ubuntu tablet is a secure thin client that can be managed with the same tools as any Ubuntu server or desktop. We are delighted to support partners on touch and mobile thin clients for the enterprise market."

Ubuntu on the tablet won't just be for high-end x86-powered tablets, though. “Our four-year engagement with ARM has shaped Ubuntu for mobile” said Rick Spencer, VP Ubuntu Engineering at Canonical. “We benefit from the huge number of contributing developers who run Ubuntu every day, many of whom are moving to touch devices as their primary development environment.”

Ubuntu for tablets is ready to go on existing hardware. Canonical states that "Ubuntu is compatible with any Linux-oriented Board Support Package (BSP). This means Ubuntu is easy to enable on most chipset designs currently running Android. Ubuntu and Android are the two platforms enabled by Linaro members.

While there were no announcements of shipping hardware, you will be able to check Ubuntu on tablets yourself. The Touch Developer Preview of Ubuntu will be published on the February 21 with installation instructions for the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablet devices as well as smartphones such as the Nexus 4 and Galaxy Nexus. Installable images and source code will be available from the Ubuntu developer site.
The Preview software development kit (SDK), which currently supports phone app development, will now be updated to support tablet apps as well. And, once again, Canonical promises that "Uniquely, on Ubuntu, developers can create a single application that works on the phone, tablet, PC and TV because it is the same system and all services work across all form factors."

Can Canonical live up to these promises? With the release of the developer beta and the SDK, we'll soon see.

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