Ubuntu wants to make a home for itself on your smartphone and tablet. Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu open-source operating system, is working on a mobile version called Ubuntu Touch that the British company hopes will hit the market in late 2013. Although the software is still in beta, Canonical has made an early developer preview available for download, giving app makers and potential users a glimpse at what the operating system will offer.
We downloaded the beta on our Google Nexus 4, one of the two devices on which the OS currently works, the other being the Google Nexus 7. Then, we went hands-on with it to see if this open-source system is the future of mobile or simply a novelty for the mobile intelligentsia.
If you’re familiar with Ubuntu, you’ll feel right at home with Ubuntu Touch. Canonical has done well ensuring that the mobile OS carries over the same classic purple and orange color scheme as the desktop version. First, you’ll notice that there are no physical or on-screen navigation buttons, which will surely prove to be the most jarring transition for iOS and Android users. Instead, you control the OS using a series of gestures. Swiping in from the left brings up the vertical apps bar from which you can access your favorite apps, while swiping in from the right gives you access to your previous apps.
Swiping down from the top of the screen lets you manage the OS’ system controls, such as Battery, Networks, Sound and Messages. This action also gives you access to the phone’s universal search option. To make changes to specific apps, swipe up from the bottom of the screen while the app is open and rest your finger on the magnifying glass that appears at the screen’s center. This will open the Settings menu.
From the lock screen, or Welcome Screen as Canonical calls it, you are treated to a customizable animated circle that displays important information about missed calls, remaining monthly minutes, received Tweets and text messages, and more. In its current beta state, the lock screen only simulates this feature by showing you what your display would look like if you received 14 Tweets while away from your phone. In the final version, Canonical says the Welcome Screen will cycle through each of the aforementioned notifications while the screen’s background changes colors.
Contrary to our first instinct, touching the circle does not unlock the phone. Instead, you swipe in from the right side of the screen to access the last screen you were using, or the home screen if you are turning the phone on. Alternatively, you can swipe in from the left side of the screen to bring up the OS’ customizable vertical apps launcher.
If you want to go to the home screen, you can tap the Ubuntu icon at the bottom of the apps bar. Eventually, Canonical says that they will implement a proper lock screen option similar to what you’d find on an Android or iOS device, but because the beta is meant to be passed around, it doesn’t have a lock screen installed.
Ubuntu Touch has four basic home screens including Home, Music, People, Video and Apps. From Home, you can access several categories including Frequent Apps, Favorite People, People Recently in Touch, Recent Music and Videos Popular Online. If you scroll down the screen, you can navigate each of the categories,
Because there are so many categories on a single screen, Canonical gave each one its own distinct look, making it easier to distinguish one from the other when quickly scrolling down the screen. The Frequent Apps section, for example, displays your six most-used apps, while the Favorite People category provides you with a swipeable carousel of images of your favorite contacts, complete with their last social media updates. Canonical says each of these menus can be customized based on how you want to use your phone. However, because the OS is in its beta build, we were unable to make any changes.
Swiping left to right while on the Home screen brings up the People and Music screens. On the People screen, you can view your contacts’ numbers, images, social media updates, email addresses and home addresses. The Music screen offers categories including Featured, Recent, New Releases and Top Charting. Swipe from right to left while on the Home screen to bring up the Apps and Videos screens.
Like Music, the Videos screen gives offers lists including Featured, Recent, New Releases and Popular Online. Apps shows you your currently running apps, most used apps, installed apps and apps available for download. While navigating the operating system, we noticed how easy it was to overshoot the screen we wanted to access, an obvious result of the OS being in beta stage.
When handling messages, Ubuntu Touch takes a page out of BlackBerry 10′s book and combines all of your incoming and outgoing messages in one unified inbox. To access the messages menu, you swipe down from the letter icon at the top of the screen. From here, you’ll see Facebook updates, missed Skype calls, missed phone calls and who’s sent you text messages.
As with the BlackBerry Hub, users will be able to respond to their messages from within the Message center. Unfortunately, like much of Ubuntu Touch, the Messages app doesn’t function in the beta version. We were able to read the preloaded messages that come with the OS and see how responding to them works, but we weren’t able to receive or send any of our own.
Ubuntu Touch’s camera app is a far departure from the stock Android app found on the Nexus 4. You don’t get slick functions like Photo Sphere, which allows you to shoot photos in every direction and stitch them together to create a large image. Instead, you are limited to using the front-facing or rear-facing cameras, shooting video, modulating the flash, and zooming in or out.
Additional functions are available by swiping up from the bottom of the screen and opening the controls menu, though none of the settings were accessible in the beta version. The Gallery app, which is a native app, offers a pleasant view of your photos broken down by they day they were taken, album or a full gallery of all of your photos.
Ubuntu’s Web browser, like the rest of the OS, does well to keep the screen clear of any controls, so you have more to feast your eyes on at once. To bring up the address bar and page-forward and -back controls, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen.
If you swipe up too far, however, you’ll bring up the app-settings menu. From there, you can open a new tab, go to a specific Web address, reload a page or move forward or back.
Like Mozilla’s Firefox OS, Ubuntu Touch will let you use Web apps and also let users download native apps to the phone. This best of both worlds approach lets you rummage through the realm of Web apps, while still taking advantage of the reliability and speed of native apps.
Canonical says that because Ubuntu Touch is relatively unchanged from its desktop variant, developers will be able to create apps that can be used across multiple devices without making any major changes. In fact, Ubuntu’s Software Center already has more than 45,000 available apps, but none of them are yet available for Ubuntu Touch.
For an operating system that’s still in its beta stage, Ubuntu Touch has the look of a finished product. The feel, on the other hand, could still use some serious tweaking. Overshooting the screen you want is too easy, and overall sensitivity is far too high. Canonical plans on delivering Ubuntu to smartphones later this year, which means the beta we used on our Nexus 4 could have a completely new feel on a device specifically designed for the OS.
While we like the little we’ve seen of Ubuntu Touch, the true test of the operating system will come when it’s time to show off its native apps library. Web apps are all well and good, but the comparative lag they show in performance and their dependence on Web connectivity make their usability limited. Canonical is already in talks with carriers and developers on ways the OS can stand out from the crowd and from what we’ve seen it just may be able to hang with the big boys.