Ubuntu 13.10 final beta: Ubuntu for smartphones is almost here

There are lots of interesting things ahead for Ubuntu desktop users in the next release, but what's really going to be important is how well Ubuntu does on the smartphone.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ubuntu 13.10, aka Saucy Salamander, is almost here. The popular Linux desktop just when into final beta and it's on schedule to go final on October 17. While Ubuntu desktop users will be happy to see the latest and greatest from Canonical, the important news for Ubuntu's corporate backer will be the release of its smartphone brother, Ubuntu Touch.

We're weeks away from the next release of Ubuntu, Saucy Salamander.

True, we're not going to see the Ubnutu-powered superphone, the Ubuntu Edge. But Canonical, with the help of telecommunication carriers such as Verizon, has every intention of becoming the number three smartphone operating system — after Android and iOS — in the short run, and eventually challenging the big two.

With only weeks to go before launch, Ubuntu Touch is still having some teething problems (Google Docs). On its reference hardware, the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 smartphones, Ubuntu Touch is working well. On tablets, it's also working on the Samsung Nexus 10; but on the Asus Nexus 7, it's having real trouble. The core smartphone functionality, however, is there.

Developer tools are coming along nicely; the GUI Toolkit is making it easier for app developers. Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's community leader, wrote on September 20: "We are finalizing much of the core infrastructure (SDK, docs, knowledge, support, publishing) I really want to focus more and more on widening the awareness of Ubuntu as a powerful and fun developer platform." To help with this, Ubuntu has recently updated its developers' Web site.

I've had a chance to play some with Ubuntu Touch and I think it has a reasonable chance to be a mobile operating system contender. That said, I'm looking forward to seeing the first real release and trying it out in day to day use.

Moving to the desktop, Ubuntu 13.10 is based on the 3.11 Linux kernel, jokingly known as Linux for Workgroups. It will include the usual Linux desktop programs: Firefox 24 for the Web browser; LibreOffice 4.1 for the office suite; Thunderbird for email; and Rhythmbox will be the default music player.

So much for the basics. Where things get interesting, and controversial, is with Ubuntu's new graphics stack and its built-in search options: Smart Scopes.

To make Ubuntu truly one operating system on tablets, smartphones and PCs, and just to improve graphics performance, Ubuntu has introduced its own display server, Mir, to replace the venerable and slow X Window.

Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and Ubuntu's founder, is happy with the Mir graphics stack. Others, led by Red Hat, prefer Wayland as an X Window replacement. Even Kubuntu, an Ubuntu spinoff that uses KDE for its desktop, will be using Wayland instead of Mir.

Mir won't be 100-percent ready for Ubuntu 13.10. Instead, it will use Xmir. This is a stack where X and Unity 7, the Ubuntu desktop, will run on top of the Mir system compositor by default, with a fallback of running X if there's no hardware that the Mir drivers can support. Intel, for one, will not be supporting Xmir.

For users, none of this is likely to matter. Regardless of your platform, you'll still be able to watch your LoLCat videos or what have you. For developers, it's a different story. At this point, while Wayland has the momentum, there's still no telling which, if either, will succeed X Window. It's worth noting that Linux game vendor Valve is electing to stick with X in its forthcoming Ubuntu-based SteamOS.

Smart Scopes, formerly known as Lens, will finally ship. When Lens was first introduced, it integrated Amazon search results with local Unity Dash search results. Many users regarded  this as an invasion of their privacy. Shuttleworth defended this commercial search when it was introduced in 2012, but it eventually was pulled as a mandatory feature and it became optional.

Since then, other operating systems, such as Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 8.1, have also integrated Internet search with local search. In this release, Canonical will be extending Ubuntu's Dash searches as well.

In Ubuntu 13.10, when you search with Unity Dash you'll have the option of having your local search not only look into Amazon but in Facebook, Google Drive, Yelp, and dozens of other services as well. Personally, I think this will be a handy feature.

While I'm really looking forward to seeing the next Ubuntu desktop, what's really going to be important this go-around will be Ubuntu Touch. It's this, far more than on the desktop, that Canonical is counting on to bring in the business to finally make it a profitable company.

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