You probably heard the big news about Canonical's plans to build Ubuntu for Android devices. It's something I'm extremely excited about and have been tinkering with myself since the days of the Nexus One. This latest -- and finally official -- iteration resembles (and is being compared to) something we've seen before from Motorola -- Webtop. We got to sit down and talk to the folks at Canonical for more information about Ubuntu for Android this week, and I'm here to tell you, chances are this won't be like Webtop at all.
It won't suck. And here's why:
Where the lapdock flopped, Ubuntu will triumph
Put away your pitchforks, I've been saying that I love what Motorola was trying with Webtop since I had the Atrix. It's innovative, and an area that definitely needed exploring. Where Motorola went wrong was forcing you to use expensive accessories, and trying to limit the experience. Android hackers, as they're prone to do, improved the Webtop experience by rooting it and opening it up a bit, but it's still limited by design. And that's where Canonical went the right direction with Ubuntu for Android.
Since I'm sort of a Linux evangelist (got the neckbeard and everything), as well as a longtime Linux user, I was really interested in what we heard about Ubuntu for Android, and asked a few questions that most people probably wouldn't have. And I liked the answers I got. Rather than try to keep the Ubuntu experience limited to what they think you'll want, it's going to be a wide-open, full-blown, honest-to-goodness Ubuntu installation, running in tandem with Android. Full administrative tools, the full package manager, and everything you would ever want in a desktop computer OS, with a very broad set of requirements on the hardware side.
It's Ubuntu for Android, not Ubuntu on Android
Android runs on the Linux kernel. Ubuntu runs on the Linux kernel. We're looking at one kernel, with modules and drivers for all the hardware, and only the processes presented to the user change based on how the screen is being displayed. Plug your phone into a monitor through the HDMI output, and the processes that run to give you Android on your phone are suspended, and the processes that run to give you Ubuntu on the desktop are initialized. Make sense?
Doing it this way, your desktop experience isn't dependent on the Android OS running on your phone. In other words, it's not really Ubuntu on Android. It's Ubuntu with Android.
It's not a dual-boot solution either -- it's done dynamically and triggered when you plug in an external monitor. Because it's all running off the same kernel, you can just hop back and forth. That's the way it should be done.
Have HDMI cable, will travel
And there will be no expensive, and difficult to find, hardware involved. Any HDMI cable and any Bluetooth keyboard and mouse will work. We're pretty sure some OEM accessories will be available eventually, and they'll be quite nice, but that cheap keyboard and mouse combo you picked up from 5 Below will work as well. Not needing a $100 dock is going to make this more accessible to everyone. Even a laptop shell need not be an expensive OEM model, and I can see companies providing a universal solution at a decent price if the market is there for one.
The biggest difference will be in the software. Plug in your Motorola phone to its Webtop appliance, and you get a basic, very limited, and difficult-to-customize experience. You're depending on Motorola to maintain and provide the software, and it just didn't do a very good job at it. (Not that it's easy, but still.)
With Ubuntu, you'll have a normal installation built for ARM processors. You'll be able to customize it the same way you do on your desktop, using the same tools, and have full access to Synaptic -- Ubuntu's package manager. Once the documentation and source headers are available, that means anyone can build any software and tailor it to be optimized for use with Ubuntu on Android. All the great open-source programs we know and love can (and surely will) be built using special compiler flags to tailor them to the ARMbuntu hardware, and the end result is going to be programs that run as well as the hardware allows. Chromium, Firefox, Gimp, you name it -- it's all possible.
The Android community is going to have a field day with this, and the huge Ubuntu development community is going to as well. the demo we saw was very smooth, and had some great features built-in, but when the geeks and nerds get ahold of this I'm pretty sure it's going to become something amazing.
One for the nerds
Speaking of geeks and nerds, Ubuntu is a fully open-source desktop OS. This means that the source code for all of it, no matter how big a part or how small, will be available for folks like you and I to tinker with. You think there are a lot of custom ROMs for Android? Wait until you see what can be done with Ubuntu. Every element of the user interface can be changed, as well as everything behind the scenes running it all. And you don't need any special skills to try it -- just open the preferences and change away. The use of standards and open-source software combined with millions of users make Ubuntu the king of desktop customization, and UI add-ins like desklets and docks mean no two machines look the same.
Themers and modders unfamiliar with Ubuntu will be beside themselves, and those that already use Ubuntu on their home desktop will be fired up to re-tool their creations for the Ubuntu on Android experience. Of course, since everything is open and the code is available for everyone, we'll see this backported to our existing phones and tablets as well. Our newly formed Ubuntu for Android forums will be jumping, and I'll be right there with you guys having a blast.
There is a catch, however ...
Let's face it, Ubuntu running alongside Android in this manner isn't for everyone. And that's fine. The other catch is that you won't be able to put it on any old phone. Hardware requirements aside (think dual-core as the low end), Ubuntu in this case isn't just some application you download and install from the Android Market. The code will have to be specially compiled and baked into a ROM.
It's conceivable we'll see current carriers and manufacturers do it, but we're not going to be the farm on it. (And given their track record for updates, that's not necessarily a bad thing.) Chances are if you're reading this and care at all about Linux, that's not going to be a big concern. But it's something to be aware of.
We'll know more about availability when we talk to Canonical at Mobile World Congress, and you can bet we'll keep everyone informed. It's time to get excited again!