If you were releasing a new mobile platform these days, what would be your big differentiator? London-based Canonical has decided that its new Ubuntu for smartphones, announced this week, will be a “smartphone interface” that includes phones, tablets, desktops, televisions and the cloud. 

The new mobile product is intended for both ARM and x86 devices, and when an Ubuntu-equipped smartphone is docked with a monitor, keyboard and mouse, the smartphone acts as an Ubuntu-based PC.

One Platform, Many Faces

Ubuntu for smartphones actually utilizes the kernel and drivers from Android, and is compatible with any Android-suitable hardware, but it does not use the Java virtual machine. Somewhat confusingly, Canonical had announced Ubuntu for Android in February, as a way to run a desktop Android machine from a mobile device, but the new Ubuntu for smartphones is a separate product and does not run Android.

Canonical is following a path that was blazed in 2011 by Motorola, whose Atrix 4G smartphone was designed to act, when docked, as the brains of a desktop computer. But that experiment, while praised by the press for its integrated vision of component computing, never caught on.  

In a video on Canonical’s website, CEO and founder Mark Shuttleworth said the goal with this product was to make “something that has never existed before -- one platform for all kinds of computing.”

In addition to the attempt at a unified platform with different interfaces for different devices, Canonical is also attempting to streamline the smartphone interface, the software development process and other aspects of the smartphone ecosystem.

Ubuntu Smartphones.png

Four Edges

Each of the four edges of the Ubuntu for smartphones’ interface hides specific functions, such as favorite apps under the left edge and a search function under the top. The functions, and all controls for apps, are only displayed when needed, maximizing the entire, though limited smartphone screen space for the app or feature, if so desired.

In addition, all apps feature voice commands, have automatic backups to a personal cloud and can support a traditional desktop. To offer access to the large inventory of mobile apps the company hopes to engender, the growing Ubuntu Software Center will be growing an app store. In the video, Shuttleworth noted that mobile Web apps, often considered secondary in performance to native ones, are being treated as “first class citizens” that show up on the device’s menus and can use some of the system features that a native app might.

No Ubuntu-specific smartphones, carriers or manufacturers have been announced yet, and all the announcement material appears pitched toward presenting the carriers and mobile manufacturers with reasons why they should join PC makers, such as Dell and Lenovo, in releasing Ubuntu-running models. Mobile Ubuntu is expected to be available on Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus smartphones later this year as a replacement offering for Android, and Canonical said it expects Ubuntu-specific smartphones to be on the market by late 2013 or early next year.