Ubuntu on Android

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

Atrix Laptop dock

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.

HDMI connection

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.

Android Central

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!


Reader comments

Why Ubuntu for Android can succeed where others failed


so I'm guessing since I thought umbuntu was a country in Africa, this probably isn't for me? :) sounds cool regardless.

No, this is for you as well.  Plug your Android phone into a monitor, and it becomes a desktop computer. Our phones are already as powerful as a netbook, they just need some software direction to make them work this way.  Canonical, the folks behind Ubuntu, have taken the initiative and we're pretty excited about it (can you tell? lol)


Ubuntu would certainly be low on my list of which Linux distro I would want to run on any device... but this is still *VERY* nice. Having a true X environment would open tons of doors for usefulness and customization. Probably one of the biggest challenges would be the puny amount of memory in phones. 1GB is pretty tight for a modern desktop...

But why would it need to be limited to just on phones with HDMI & keyboard? I think this type of project would be great on a tablet, without needing to use an external monitor or keyboard!

thats exactly what Im thinking. Give me something the same form factor as say the Galaxy Note with a quad-core processor and maybe 2gb of ram and this would be AWESOME!!!!!

Then just think of it as Debian Linux with the "Unity" Desktop, (Gnome out, Unity In) because that's all it really is.

Of course the derivation of the name Debian is even sappier than Ubuntu.

The take away here is that huge chunks of Andorid patches have been ported back into the Linux kernel by Linus and the other kernal maintainers. So a more pure linux (less android) OS is within reach of smartphone developers.

If anything dethrones Android in the future it will probably be a Linux derivative, if not a 100% linux kernel with a smattering of hardware drivers and a lightweight desktop. Oh, wait, that sounds like the future knocking at the door right now.

Well, the fact that you're uninitiated with this particular flavor of Linux (Ubuntu) would make this even more exciting for you. It's really quite an impressive concept, with potential to remold the mobile computing ecosystem. Your phone could double as a desktop environment, essentially replacing 90% of the reasons you would keep a laptop.
Also, Ubuntu is arguably the best distro of Linux for those coming from Windows, as well, as it's very user friendly. Others LOOK more like Windows, but this one performs well out of the box, with very little setup required to have a full-blown PC experience. Plenty of people knock Canonicals new direction of using the Unity Desktop Environment, but I find it does just fine, and is easily replaced if the need arises. Hell, being that this will be a full Ubuntu OS running in tandem with Android, you could make such customizations.
I predict the biggest promise in Ubuntu for Android is going to be for the Enterprise market. With Android ICS and JB, there seems to be more of a focus on a secure computing environment. Add a fully capable Desktop environment on top of that, with very little cost of conversion from older systems, and it's a novel solution. Not only should Microsoft and Apple take notice, RIM/Blackberry could see a definite hit in their little corner of Enterprise markets.
On top of that, all this while Google revamps it's android marketing strategy to give carriers less control over software releases...
I think Google came to Canonical on this one, not the other way around. Chrome OS is crap, and Ubuntu is lightweight and has miles of highway already paved.

TL;DR: be excited. this is gonna be amazing.

I think the big turn off for WebTop was the additional tethering charge that AT&T added onto the setup. That in itself made it more of a non-seller than the concept.

I think the idea that the processor, software, and everything is still on the actual phone will help. Hopefully this will take off well!

Yeah that forced tethering charge was why I lost all interest in it.

Its freaking crazy to pay a fee just to use a $200 accessory. It should have any additional carrier fee. You're not using a whole other data line, you're simply changing the view of your phone.

My phone isn't going to be able to run this (maybe my next phone), but i probably won't have much use for it.

However... I have an ASUS Transformer and would love to run ubuntu constantly on it. It is always connected to a largish screen, always has a mouse and keyboard. This would be great.

I am hoping some dev with a TF101 agrees with me.

But will it work for the GNex? >.<

This is seriously THE dream. This plus the google goggle glasses and holy crap.

I read the news yesterday and was pretty excited, it was easily the biggest IT related news of the day. I would love some tighter integration between Android and Ubuntu.

I remember though that not long ago Canonical was working on a tablet edition of Ubuntu -- is this project still on, and how does it realate to the current announcement?

Purdy sweet.

Sadly, I have no neckbeard but this can open a few doors. Let alone the quad core devices coming with Nvidia... Wine + wifi = real mobile gaming.

You are, of course, correct. But I say "Screw WINE". Who cares about running MS-Windows binaries? I choose Linux and want to run Linux apps!

What are the chances this Ubuntu build will support VNC through WiFi? That would make any desktop a potential thin client for the phone, with no special hardware required. It would be nice to be able to use my software collection and environment anywhere there's a PC, without having to carry any extra equipment at all.

Nice job, Canonical. I don't think Microsoft or Apple can duplicate this. I don't think they would, even if they could.

Current (universal) chroot based solutions do exactly that, though usually the vnc client is on the phone/tablet itself.

If this takes off as quickly as I think it will the software market for this transition should be fantastic. Using our smart phones as laptop computers is great stuff. Plug your LTE quad core device into a descent monitor and you have one blazing fast computer with all the bells and whistles. I can hardly wait.

Will first-time users know how to change the shell? I doubt it. They'll just see Unity, which, if they've used Windows or OSX, is just sub-standard. Heck, it's sub-standard against every other Linux desktop shell out there too. Not just functionally, but if they can't get it snappy on the average desktop, what hope do they have on mobile?

You mean window menager, in Linux "shell" is command input program, most basic one is sh (which Android alone use), the most popular is bash, there many others

I'm not a current Linux user, but I'm certainly excited for this progression.

I was hoping this would come from Google first with a merge of ChromeOS and/or ICS forming a better variant with GoogleTV/etc. But this is definitely going to push that eventual outcome a lot quicker.

Hopefully, Google attacks this before iOS and MS do it in their next revisions.

I would have thought so too... but I am glad, because I wouldn't want some Googleified environment. Their motive would be to spy on the user, use "cloud" services for everything and not necessarily encourage tinkering and user choice.

This news makes the Jellybean story about "dual booting" with Chrome OS sound plausible. Why wouldn't Google want to make Chrome the standard Webtop like experience. Also, what is google doing with Chrome OS anyway.

I think Android on Phone and Chrome OS on a Desk-dock is a cool concept worth exploring.

Who cares about Chrome? An abortive waste of time, if you ask me, but obviously convincing enough to mislead both MS and Apple in the wrong direction.

Give me my OS running on my hardware with no strings attached anytime, keep your cloud to youself.

Whilst I agree with you completely - I also think Chrome OS is a complete waste of time - this is what Google should have done long ago, if they ever really wanted Chrome OS to take off...

By the time Google releases an Android upgrade with this sort of functionality - or more importantly, by the time the majority of manufacturers distribute this upgrade to their customers - Ubuntu will have been offering this functionality to a growing list of Android devices for 1-2+ years and who knows, maybe even Apple or Microsoft will have made a similar feature available on their smartphones?

Android 4.x ("Ice Cream Sandwich") has been out for a year now and I could count the devices that received an upgrade or released with this pre-installed almost on one hadn... If this is anything to go by and Google does actually offer similar functionality, it's going to be far too little, far too late!

I don't think ChromeOS is really intended for people like us. There is, however, a niche market where someone needs something el cheapo that runs well and allows them to check their email, facebook, etc, and even play a few casual games.

ChromeOS fits this bill very nicely.

One of the other reasons this will succeed is Cortex A15. The hardware on the Atrix struggled to keep up with webtop. It was and is an awesome idea, but it wasn't snappy enough.

This would make a compelling thin client (in addition to a full desktop replacement) if the receiver apps are optimized for Ubuntu for Android. I could see this working well for customers what have already deployed a Citrix or view back end in their data-center. With a halfway decent laptop dock, it would solve one of the main problems with server based computing and mobile connectivity.

I have the same question with this that I had with the Atrix - say I don't have a bluetooth headset. What do you do when the phone rings?

The carriers should love this. Every geek who has been holding on to old hardware will run, not walk, to buy new phones that can run this.

I'll miss my Nexus One, but this is too good to pass up.

Why should everyone buy their new hardware from the carriers? US's flawed model isn't ubiquitous, you know?

I do like this. The sheer portability potential is saliva-inducing to say the least. A fully fledged PC in your pocket. Nice. Hopefully we'll be able to try this out on our "Low end" dual core machines. I already have the hdmi cable and BT keyboard/mouse.

*Rubbing hands like an evil genius*

I'll buy another HDMI adapter for my phone and build a dock around it with an NFC tag that automatically turns on bluetooth and connects to a keyboard and mouse...and with that I shall rule the world!!!!!

...though in all seriousness, I will absolutely be doing that minus the ruling the world part (rubbing hands included)

What does this mean for non-progamming end users with rooted phones but without neckbeards? I have no idea whether I should be happy about this.

Anything that gives a user more choice is something we should all be happy about. It might not be something you would care much about, unless you want to turn your phone into a "desktop" like machine.

One use-case:
Do you ever travel? For work or play?
Most hotels have decent TV's with HDMI. Pull a small bluetooth keyboard and mouse out of your bag, connect the HDMI cable to the TV, and you've got a decent computer with a nice big screen to browse the web and watch some YouTube or Hulu. Or maybe you've got some work to do? You could pull up OpenOffice to edit that spreadsheet. Or whatever...

I can't get excited about this. I don't see where it will add any value to my life. I get that I can carry a desktop around with me, but to what end does that do me any good? So every place I go has to have a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, as well as an HDMI compliant monitor at the ready? I could set that up at home, but it would probably take a miracle to get that into most work environments, not to mention airports, libraries, or coffee shops.

I called this the 'anti-cloud' solution yesterday. As of right now, cloud solutions allow my data to be at my phone on the go or any desktop device I happen to be using that has an internet connection. I think differently since reading a post on G+ this morning by Jason Bauman. He described this as being the beginning of a sort of 'personal cloud' solution, where everything in your phone's wifi range could be part of your own cloud. When you come home, your phone is the master key to get all of your devices up and running. That idea I can see some potential in. So I really hope the best for those working on this project, and want to see what ideas they can come up with.

Why don't you just carry the BT keyboard and mouse with you? It's not like they take up that much space. Definitely less than a laptop would...
Yah, you're not going to find a HDMI TV/monitor available in most airports, libraries, or coffee shops. But you will in almost any office or hotel. Why do you need a full desktop environment when sitting in the airport? Sounds like you'd be served better by the lapdock Motorola has for a few of their phones...

Add an HDMI to VGA cable, and any monitor will now also connect... Those can be had for about $2. Get one of those folding Bluetooth keyboards and a small bluetooth mouse and you're talking about 1/4 of the space/weight of the dinkiest netbook. And if you have to, you can live on the screen on the phone if you can't find a monitor. Not ideal, but at least doable. And if you CAN find one, bye bye lugging around a laptop! Get a decent VPN in to your business and RDP into your desktop, and work like you were sitting at your desk at work.

I'm a fan, but write this down. Google will block this IMO. Maybe the build can spoof the markers that decide which apps show up, but one example might be market access.

Jerry, does Android Market work with any builds to download apps after this ROM is installed?

My gut says this goes a little too far off the reservation for even the folks at Google. Doesn't mean it can't work, just as you can put these distros on your laptop. But not many save the deepest techies will have the patience to make this work, and I'm not sure even the XDA types have the bandwidth to continue what would almost be another whole set of ROMs to build per phone if Google evolves the Android kernel enough to make it tiresome, kind of like Apple did to WebOS itunes functionality.

Hope I'm wrong, getting Android as truly open as the Intel Linux distros would be pretty amazing.


I agree. I find it hard to believe Google would stand by and allow "their" platform to be opened up in quite this way. The way this unfolds should be interesting.

This will probably work like webtop does on current Motorola phones sach as the Atrix, Bionic and Razor. It runs from a different partition than the Andoid OS does and loads Ubuntu/unloads Android when an HDMI cable is plugged in , much like the current Moto Lapdocks work. Google has been fine with that, so the Ubuntu thing should not be that big of a stretch.

Just as any custom ROM build you load the gapps separately. As long as these ROMS do not come with any proprietary Google software there is nothing they can say about it. I highly doubt Google will attempt to block any USER installs of gmail and the like because a custom ROM that also has Ubuntu running alongside.

Will you be able to change DE on this install or will it be low level settings like themes? Is it a complete Ubuntu or a part of it?

The folks at Canonical said we'd have full access to Synaptic and package repos. Anything built for ARM and packaged up for a Debian/Ubuntu install should be available. Of course, we're limited by our device storage, so a full KDE envrionment might be out of the question.

I've been delaying and delaying the migration to 'laptop' over 'desktop' as my main rig, if this comes around for real in the next 6 months or so, I will definitely shop for my upgrade phone to have this and migrate to this platform - after some other brave souls have done the main beta testing. :P

And this is coming from a LONG TIME (18 years professionally) Windows and systems engineer. ;-)

For people who are using Android as their first smartphone platform this probably does not seem like a big deal. That's because they have probably not really experienced the synergy that comes with having your mobile platform talk with and share data with the apps on their desktops. By that I don't just mean Office and Office Mobile type sharing. More like the functionality of Evernote for Android + Windows spread over dozens of apps.
As a former Windows Mobile user this ability was taken for granted. Applications from dev's like Phatware, Illiumsoft and others made it possible to maintain robust notes and list databases, music libraries and more that synced accross devices. This is something that Android has not had much of and it'sbeen a challenge to find Android/Windows apps that worked in the same way. In the desktop world I use mostly Windows but I have a couple Ubuntu machines that I set up using older PCs that I wanted to wring some extra 'mileage' from. What's great about Ubuntu is that it runs pretty well on machines that won't play well with Windows Vista or Seven. A lot of people probably have machines like these laying around. And most of the Ubuntu application software is free as well as the Ubunto OS - which has got to be a real plus for folks that think ten or fifteen bucks is too much to spend on an Android app.
I don't know about other readers but I'm getting pretty tired of the paid upgrade treadmill for Windows & Windows apps that has me throwing money at hardware and software every couple years. This will probably get some people to really start looking at Ubuntu more seriously - especially if it helps create a synergy like IOS and Mac have.
I'll bet the folks at Microsoft and Apple aren't liking this news very much...

But can a guy still have the option to plug their phone into HDMI and just get the android screen too?

At lunchtime I like to plug into my work monitor and watch a bit of Netflix while I eat my leftovers.


If it's anything like webtop on Moto phones you will prbably see a panel open up up when you plug in the HDMI cable asking if you want to launch Ubuntu, show your gallery or mirror your Android display. Or similar options.

Not sure about being able to switch back to the android UI but you'll still be able to run the netflix android app from within the Ubuntu UI and watch away..


This is amazing news. Apple is just getting destroyed by Android. Android is pushing the boundrys and evolving while apple which use to innovate is stagnant and can't do anything about it except to try to use patent lawsuits. It amazes me that there are still so many blind lemmings who follow apple still. I guess ignorance is bliss for them, lol!

That's a bit harsh isn't it? Apples "patent-trolling" is of course pretty darn dumb, but their user base shouldn't be insulted. Apple makes decent products, and although their iOS-lags behind in terms of functionality, their build-quality is darn good. Besides, their products are easy to use which is convenient for casual users.

The consensus amongst the critics seems to be that the iPad 4th gen is the best tablet out there. For one thing.

This is way cool from the "Look what I can do Ma!" perspective. But I think it will be relegated to a small niche of enthusiasts in the end. And if I were to load it up, it would probably something I'd try out and never use again. It's not that it isn't cool and all, but most everything I will ever do, not being a programmer, can already be done on Android without Ubuntu in the picture, and the apps are only getting better as time goes by and hardware specs keep leapfrogging each other with every passing month. Adding the mouse/monitor/keyboard onto Android will give almost everyone the ability to fulfill their needs without devoting a big chunk of their phone's storage to another OS and its apps.

It'll interesting to see if this becomes successful. A Windows 8 tablet has the advantage of running on OS which is just as great on a small touch-screen device as it is with a keyboard and 24-inch monitor. Surface users (for example) can just plug their tablet to their monitor and use it like they use Windows 7.

That being said, a smartphone is more convenient to carry with you.

What I wonder is how Google would react if this really becomes popular. Would they try to get rid of Ubuntu with Android, not wanting to give up on whatever OS-plans they have for themselves?

Also, might we see something similar show up from any of the big players such as Microsoft or Apple which already have a large user base?

Only time will tell.