TV for Human Beings: Ubuntu Linux

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, introduces Ubuntu TV, a universal TV operating system, at CES.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ubuntu wants to be your universal TV operating system.

Ubuntu wants to be your universal TV operating system.

Ubuntu Linux fans will recognize this story's title as a play on the operating system's slogan: Ubuntu: Linux for human beings. Now, Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, is taking on Apple and Google by trying to make Ubuntu the operating system of choice for all-in-one Internet, cable, and satellite TV: Ubuntu TV.

According to Jane Silber, Canonical's CEO Ubuntu TV is not an attempt to bring a Linux desktop to your TV or just put a browser on your TV. Instead, the idea is to use Ubuntu GNOME-based Unity interface as the universal interface.

I can see this. I've long thought that Unity, while an OK desktop for non-power desktop users had great potential for tablets, smartphones, and, yes, now TVs.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10 Unity Interface: Photo Gallery

Silber claims Ubuntu TV is "TV for human beings. It just works." To be more exact, Ubuntu TV will work the same way it does with Unity with a launcher on the left-hand side of your TV's display. Although many people don't know it Linux has long owned the digital video recorder (DVR) business. In fact, I can't think of a single significant DVR that isn't based on Linux. What Canonical has in mind though isn't trying to replace the embedded Linux in your DVRs-although I'm sure they wouldn't turn such a contract down--they want Ubuntu to become the "operating system for your television."

So like Apple with its rumored iTV and Google with Google TV, Canonical wants its technology to actually be in your TV rather than in a set-top box, DVR or a Internet video device like the Apple TV, Roku LT, or many Blu-Ray DVD players.

A quick look at Ubuntu TV (screenshots)

Canonical believes that what users really want is simplicity from their televisions. Users don't want to switch from device to device and interface and interface to move from watching a show over the Internet to one already recorded on their DVR to a football game playing right now. They just want to watch TV and they don't care about the technical details of where the video stream comes from. As Canonical explains it, "Viewers want entertainment, not electronics. They want to relax and enjoy the movie, not juggle remote controls. Beautiful simplicity is the driving force behind Ubuntu TV. It integrates broadcast, time shift, online box office, personal cloud, apps and disk media experiences - all without wires, connectors or more boxes. It really is just the TV."

Canonical also thinks that users want to see music, photos and videos from any supported device without any fuss or muss. So they say Ubuntu TV will play media from wherever users keep their content be that on the cloud, a tablet, or even, yes, a Windows PC or media server. "Ubuntu TV brings it all together in the living room. "

What's it going to take to do this? At this point, Canonical will be demoing their Ubuntu TV software, which is based on Ubuntu 11.10, at CES. Ubuntu TV will run on both ARM and x86 systems. It requires at least 2GBs of storage space-more if a vendor plans on supporting DVR functionality-1GB of RAM and at least 512MBs of video RAM. You'll also need a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) output for audio and video. There are no currently shipping Ubuntu TVs.

While Ubuntu TV is meant for electronics manufacturers you can build your own Ubuntu TV box. Ubuntu TV's source code and build instructions are already available.

I think Ubuntu is on to something here. I've been running video over multiple devices since I was a kid growing up in my dad's TV repair shop. Today, I watch video on my TV from a cable box, a DVR, an Apple TV, a Roku box, and several Internet connected Sony Blu-Ray DVD players. I'm a tech's guy tech guy and even I get sick and tired of juggling all this. I know there's a huge market out there for a true easy-to-use television that will just us watch what we want, when we want it, no matter where it's from, without having to have a degree in electrical engineering (EE).

If you're an OEM, preferably with people with EE degrees on staff, or a content provider, you can contact the Ubuntu TV team via e-mail and start building them for yourself. I'm willing to bet that you'll find some customers.

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