Ubuntu Touch: The smartphone Ubuntu Linux arrives

Ubuntu Touch isn't ready for every user yet. But power smartphone users, Ubuntu Linux fans, and developers will want to give this new contender in the mobile device operating wars a close look. It has great potential.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ubuntu 13.10 is great on the desktop. On smartphones, Saucy Salamander, aka Ubuntu Touch, is still a work in progress. That said, for mobile programmers and Linux or smartphone power users, there's a lot to like about this first release of Ubuntu for smartphones and tablets. Here's what you need to know about it today.

Check out the latest smartphone operating system: Ubuntu Touch.

Never forget that Ubuntu Touch is what Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, sees as Ubuntu's real future. The Linux desktop is great, but it shows little sign of paying back Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth's investment. Ubuntu's commercial future lies with the OpenStack cloud and Ubuntu Touch.

Canonical has been aiming its GNOME-based interface, Unity, for mobile devices since it was revealed in 2010. Not quite three years later, Canonical still wants to use Unity for all platforms. Ubuntu Touch is the next major step in making this a reality.

Ubuntu Touch: The next hot smartphone operating system

At this time, Ubuntu Touch is only officially supported on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 smartphones; and the 2012 Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets. That's it. Plus, you'd really only want to use it on the first two. While it will run on the two tablets, most of Canonical's efforts have been on getting it to work on smartphones. Don't expect it to work well on tablets until Ubuntu 14.04 appears in April 2014.

There are also numerous other Android-based smartphones and tablets from Amazon, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung that Ubuntu Touch may run on using community-build versions. I'd be cautious about using these.

To install Ubuntu Touch, you'll need to flash your device. And, yes, that may brick it. For what it's worth, that's never happened to me or anyone I know. If you decide you just can't stand Ubuntu on your equipment, you can restore it to Android by reflashing it. You will, of course, lose all your data and apps with each operating system shift.

Once you have it installed, to update it to the latest release, Canonical is taking a new path: Image-based updates instead of using Debian Linux's apt/DEB package management.

As Rick Spencer, Canonical's VP of Ubuntu, explained in his Ubuntu for Phones FAQ, "The Ubuntu images for phones have a read only file system by default, and a specific partitioning scheme for the drives. User data and applications are kept on a separate partition from the underlying system. As a result, if our update servers know which build you are running, they have an exact copy of the system on the servers. So rather than calculating package upgrade paths on your computer, the server can simply calculate a binary diff and the phone downloads only the diff for the system. Ubuntu then applies the diff and reboots into the update image. This has the added benefit that the downloads of the updates are much smaller since users only have to download what has changed." You can, if you wish, continue to use apt for updates and to add new programs.

Once you have Ubuntu Touch installed, you're going to be running a Linux that uses the Mir display server. Mir is, at this point, an Ubuntu-only replacement for Linux's venerable X server for graphics.

While there are programmer wars about Mir vs. the other X server replacement, Wayland, it's not really that big a deal.  As Shuttleworth points out only one percent of developers will ever need to fool with Mir. Users will never notice the difference between graphic stacks. The vast majority of programmers will use toolkits such as Qt and GTK to address their apps' graphics needs. 

If you want to write apps for Ubuntu Touch, you have three ways to do it:  Web apps using HTML5; PhoneGap, an open-source framework for Web apps using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript; and native apps using the Ubuntu Software Development Kit (SDK). Eventually, you'll be able to run any Ubuntu desktop Linux app on your Ubuntu Touch smartphone, but very few desktop Linux programs have been optimized for smartphone use.

Ubuntu Touch also comes with a new system for adding applications: Click packages. In Click packages, which can only be created with the Ubuntu SDK, Spencer explained that "applications can depend only upon the 'base SDK' which is installed on all phones, or on libraries bundled directly with the application. Since click packages are uploaded to the store and run under application isolation, it is very easy and fast for an application developer to get their applications to users." This approach avoids the headaches of ensuring that the correct libraries are already in place that can make creating DEB and RPM Linux packages such an annoyance.

Once in place, these applications run in a secure mode using AppArmour. This is a widely used Linux security system that insures that each application can only access the system resources it needs to run.

All these apps run on top of Unity 8, the latest version of Ubuntu's user interface (UI). This Qt/QML UI is designed to work on multiple touch screen sizes, from smartphones to desktops. It uses the edge of the display for easy, quick access to settings, files, media, and programs.

I can't review Ubuntu Touch at this time. I'm currently using it on a 2012 Nexus 7 tablet. It is not, as Canonical will tell you, optimized for tablets yet. I can use it, but it really doesn't show its best advantages on tablets yet.

What I can say is that it's not ready for users who just want a mobile operating system that's loaded and ready to go. That said, I can also say that the Unity 8 interface is a pleasure to use, the development tools make it easy to build apps for Ubuntu Touch, and that it shows great promise.

If you're a developer, a power Ubuntu user, or a power smartphone fan, you should check Ubuntu Touch out. Of all the current minor-league mobile operating systems—from Windows Phone to Firefox OS to Sony Vita OS—I think Ubuntu Touch has the most potential to give Android and iOS a run for the smartphone dollar. Check it out for yourself and see if you agree.

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