Tablet Wars: Ubuntu Gets In The Game

Canonical Convergence

On the heels of its smartphone edition launch at CES, Canonical this week unveiled the all new Ubuntu for tablets, a version of the popular Linux distro that CEO Mark Shuttleworth described as offering "a unique UI experience and convergence between form factors that lets you run tablet and phone apps on the same screen at the same time." In a news conference on Tuesday, Shuttleworth largely parroted the company's slick six-minute 'Ubuntu for tablets' video promoting the new operating system and its features.

The revelation is bad news for Samsung, whose Galaxy Note 10.1 could lose its status as the only non-Windows tablet with multitasking. But, free and open competition is good for markets, right? And, Ubuntu offers multiple advantages that position Canonical as a premium provider of secure, stable, enterprise-tested operating systems for devices from cell phone to server.

Ubuntu Tablets' Side Stage

With its foray into tablets, Ubuntu introduces Side Stage, a feature reminiscent of Windows 8 that permits phone and other apps to occupy less than the full screen and keep running normally. Shown here is a video conferencing app alongside a browser-based Word processing document. Other app pairings mentioned during the briefing included those for Facebook, Twitter and note-taking. "Apps can declare which form factor they're compatible with," said Shuttleworth. "Most tablet apps [will be able to] run full-screen, or split screen with Side Stage."


One Binary, Many Devices

At the heart of Canonical's convergence message is a core operating system, which Shuttleworth said deploys as a single binary, adapts to target hardware and presents the optimal experience on all Ubuntu platforms. "It's exactly the same code base for TV, PC, phone and tablet [and it] is unique in the industry," said the Ubuntu founder. "That means developers can write a single app binary that will declare which form factor it will support and [set it] to run on any device." That too is unique, he claimed, adding that he has seen "strong signals" that competitors will be heading in this direction. "We're delighted to spearhead this powerful convergence story," he said. Shuttleworth also stressed that apps built for Ubuntu for tablets will work with the smartphone version using the same binaries, and vice versa. "The work we've done to shrink the OS has had good consequences."

Cross Platform

Also part of the developer story is support for HTML5, which Shuttleworth said will open the platform to apps written for Android and iOS. "We're doing more to open cross-platform [development]," said Shuttleworth. "It's also easy to wrap an app with a Java interpreter AOT to push apps into Software Centre," the Ubuntu version of an app store. What's more, Ubuntu's native toolkit is "closely aligned with BlackBerry," said Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth further stated that apps originally built for Ubuntu phone will run unchanged on Ubuntu for tablets. Windows apps can run on Ubuntu as a thin client.

Enterprise Security

Ubuntu's value to the enterprise is compelling. "The security underpinnings of Ubuntu on tablets is identical to the security of server and cloud installations," said Shuttleworth, who's also Canonical's VP of products. That means that the same encryption is in use when targeting mobile devices as when deployed on servers. "By default, you can create separate apps and users in the tablet," as shown here on the welcome screen, which also includes a guest access account. "We expect adoption in the enterprise to include multiple users on a single tablet, which is passed around in office, the factory floor, among military personnel." Ubuntu includes per-user and full-disk encryption and data protection. "This too is unique. And because it's Ubuntu, it uses the same tools used everywhere else." Device-to-device sharing is now a standard service on all Ubuntu devices and major carrier networks, Shuttleworth said. "Any app can share content easily without losing focus."


User Experience

From a physical UI perspective, Ubuntu for tablets is similar to the Windows 8 tablet experience, with features hiding behind inward swipes from all four screen edges. On Ubuntu, the left edge is home to the current user's favorite apps. With the icon ribbon visible, drag up or down to launch or switch between running apps. And, swipe right to expose, activate or kill running apps. Side Stage swipes in from the right, shuffling in a number of apps. The top edge is for configuring system settings and services, and the bottom presents current app controls. But, this is anything but Windows 8, Shuttleworth said. "The Tile interface is a stark transition that can be jarring for users," he said. "But when you go from Ubuntu on a tablet to Ubuntu on a PC, it just introduces menus, dialogs and windows management, but you're not moving things around in dramatic ways."

Source code for Ubuntu for tablets will be made public on Thursday. Shuttleworth also said development efforts were "on track" for Ubuntu 13.10 to include an entry-level smartphone in October, with the first devices expected in early 2014 along with Ubuntu 14.04.