Ubuntu: One OS, one interface, all devices

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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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