At first glance, Ubuntu 13.10 for smartphones, aka Ubuntu Touch, looks like any other mobile operating system. Some of the differences are minor. For instance, there's a search bar on the top along with the usual device indicators and the main window displays only what’s currently in use instead of a default selection of icons. A closer look reveals an operating system and user interface (UI) that's not quite like any other mobile UI.
For starters, under the UI, there's the Mir display server and windows manager. Above it, there's the Unity 8 shell. Ubuntu has been using this shell on the desktop for years. A major difference from other device interfaces is that you start most activities by using the interface's edges rather than icons. For example, to unlock the phone, you swipe from the right edge.
To access your smartphone's indicators, you swipe down from the top edge. This includes, from left to right on the top bar, GPS, Wi-Fi/cellular data settings, mail, the battery, volume, and time and date. Once you swipe, you'll be able to access these functions from icons that appear on the main display.
Once done with settings, you swipe upwards and the settings disappear and the indicators reappear into the top bar.
You swipe from the left edge to access the main applications. All this "swiping" works remarkably well.
Swiping from the left brings up the Unity Launcher. The Launcher provides access to your files, programs and currently running programs. You can add, or "pin," applications to the Launcher to customize it.
You can add any or all of your installed apps to the Launcher. Or, you can find them by looking for them in installed apps or by searching for them. Once found, you simply press on its icon, like in all touch systems, to activate an app.
To see what you're doing, Ubuntu Touch enables you to view both the applications you're currently running on the top of the display and frequently used apps on the bottom. Pressing the icons will bring them up and into focus. At any point, you can swipe from the left edge to bring up the Launcher or from the top to access settings.
Ubuntu Touch also includes integration with Ubuntu cloud services such as Ubuntu One, Canonical's personal cloud storage service. With its two-factor authentication, this smartphone operating system offers extra security.
You won't find any surprises in Ubuntu Touch's System Settings.
Ubuntu One comes with a good number of working apps such as the cloud version of the Amazon Kindle Reader. It also has a selection of basic programs: the Ubuntu Touch Core Apps.
The operating system also currently supports a few basic games. The fancy stuff--Candy Crush anyone?--is still a ways off.
Ubuntu Touch also supports other media programs such as an online radio player. There are still only a handful of Ubuntu Touch apps at this time, but more should be coming quickly.
Finally, a golden oldie. Yes, you can run a Linux shell on an Ubuntu phone if you really, really want to. What's probably more useful: You also can run ssh from, or to, the phone for remote administration work.
The real charm isn't using Ubuntu Touch for a blast from our character-based interface past; it's that taken as a whole, the edge-based interface is very easy to use and it's fast to learn.
Is it ready for everyone? No. This is still an early release and it needs many more apps. That said, if you're a power phone user or a developer, it's well worth exploring. Ubuntu Touch just may be the future of smartphones and tablets.