Millions of people have tried out Ubuntu, a free operating system for desktop and notebook PCs. Like Android, Ubuntu is open-source and based on Linux, and while it's mostly seen as an OS for hobbyists here in the U.S., hardware manufacturers like Dell and HP make Ubuntu PCs for markets like mainland China.
Now Canonical, the startup which drives Ubuntu's partly community-based development, has announced a version of Ubuntu that's made for smartphones. The company previously showed off an experimental version of desktop Ubuntu that hobbyists could install on their Nexus 7 tablets. But the version Canonical demoed Wednesday was tailor-made for smartphones.
What makes Ubuntu different?
The smartphone version of Ubuntu bears little resemblance to the desktop version, aside from its graphical style. Its interface is based around gestures and swipes; instead of a back button, for instance, you swipe from the right-hand edge of the screen to return to a previous app. Swiping up from the bottom, meanwhile, reveals an app's menu, which remains off-screen until then.
Tech expect John Gruber was critical of the Ubuntu phone interface, noting that "gestures are the touchscreen equivalent of keyboard shortcuts" because they need to be explained to someone before they can use them. The Ubuntu phone site itself calls the experience "immersive," because it allows more room for the apps themselves.
What will Ubuntu fans recognize?
First, the apps. The same Ubuntu apps which are currently available in the Software Center (Ubuntu's equivalent of the App Store) will run on an Ubuntu phone, provided the developers write new screens designed for phones -- much less work than writing a new app from scratch. Ubuntu web apps, already integrated into its version of Firefox, will also work in the phone version.
Second, the dash and the app launcher. Ubuntu's universal search feature is easily accessible, and swiping in partway from the left edge of the screen reveals the familiar row of app icons.
What unique features does it have over other smartphone OSes?
Besides the gesture-based design, higher-end Ubuntu smartphones will be able to plug into an HDTV or monitor, and become a complete Ubuntu desktop PC. Just add a keyboard and mouse. This feature was originally announced for Android smartphones (using advertising which insults grandmothers), and Android phones featuring Ubuntu are expected before full Ubuntu phones launch.
When will it be available?
Ubuntu phones (not just Android phones with Ubuntu included) are expected to be on shelves starting in 2014. In a few weeks, however, Canonical will have a version available that you can put on your own Galaxy Nexus smartphone to try it out.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.