With Android and iOS dominating the smartphone wars, several platforms are campaigning to be the mythical third option. Windows Phone and Blackberry 10 may have higher profiles, but several open-source platforms are also vying for your attention. One of the more intriguing options is a new mobile facelift for the most popular Linux distribution, Ubuntu.
Desktop meets mobile
Unlike other open-source smartphone platforms (Android, Sailfish, Tizen), Ubuntu Mobile is a full PC operating system. Ubuntu for smartphones is the same as Ubuntu desktop – only with a mobile-friendly interface.
If you have a high-end Ubuntu smartphone, you can connect a display, keyboard, and mouse, and use it as a full-fledged Ubuntu PC. For all of Microsoft's talk of desktop and mobile converging, Ubuntu is the first platform to make that leap.
Ubuntu for smartphones shuns on-screen controls. To better immerse you in your content, there are no persistent back, menu, or home buttons. Instead, you navigate by swiping on the edges of the display, much like Windows 8.
Swiping from the left edge of the screen activates the launch bar, where you can quickly open any app. Swiping from the right replaces a back button, taking you to your previous app or screen. Swiping down from the top gives you quick access to system settings.
Ubuntu also sports global search (for apps, content, and products) and system-wide voice commands. It supports both native and web apps, and a mobile app store is in the works.
Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth plans on partnering with smartphone manufacturers for Ubuntu Mobile. He sees Ubuntu's security attracting enterprise customers, and its lean, attractive UI attracting consumers. But there aren't yet any devices in the pipeline.
Shuttleworth and company are, however, offering incentives for potential partners. Manufacturers and carriers can work with Canonical to highlight their own pre-installed apps and services on Ubuntu phones. Yes, we will have Ubuntu crapware.
As they share a common Linux kernel, Ubuntu can be flashed to rooted Android phones (Shuttleworth demonstrated the OS on an unlocked Galaxy Nexus). Manufacturers could potentially release Ubuntu-running versions of their existing Android devices.
In the coming weeks, Galaxy Nexus owners will be able to download a compatible build of Ubuntu. You can also expect the development community to embrace Ubuntu, creating flashable ROMs for many rooted Android phones. Canonical is hoping for OEM hardware in early 2014.
Canonical will show us more at CES 2013. In the meantime, you can watch Shuttleworth's virtual keynote below.