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Ubuntu is, hands-down, the most popular flavor of Linux out there. But Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu build, wants to do more than just show up on your computer. Canonical showed off a concept phone last year that paired Android with Ubuntu, showing the desktop operating system when the phone was docked and Google’s mobile OS for when the phone was out and about with its owner. It’s now clear that the concept shown last year was foreshadowing a much deeper dive into mobile for Canonical — today, the company pulled back the curtain on its Ubuntu-based mobile operating system.

I have plenty to say about it, but if you’re willing to sit through a 22-minute video (see video above), you can also learn about the Ubuntu Phone OS from Canonical’s CEO, Mark Shuttlesworth.


First and foremost, the Ubuntu Phone OS is a beautiful-looking mobile operating system. Your first look might have you thinking that Canonical just put its own spin on Jelly Bean, but this OS is a whole lot prettier, and it utilizes a lot more gesture-based controls than Android. In fact, gesture controls seem to be the primary way to move around the OS. The concept phone doesn’t seem to have a home button like the iPhone, or ever-present software buttons like Android. Instead, you use gestures to swipe open menus, go back to previously-opened apps, reveal the Ubuntu search bar, and show or hide the system settings bar at the top of the screen.

Speaking of the Ubuntu search bar, it looks to be a content-selling dream come true. The search results come back in multiple categories, including books, music, movies, apps, and more. It would be easy to imagine Google or Apple implementing search in this way since both companies have established content libraries, but Canonical is limited to working with third parties at this point. With no dog in the content fight, perhaps Canonical can pull in multiple sources and make its search a bit more consumer-friendly than its opponents, but that remains to be seen.

The OS certainly looks sleek, and perhaps to someone who is very familiar with it — say, a Canonical employee — navigating around looks to be a breeze. But to be quite honest, I got lost as I watched the above video. I’m sorry, Mark Shuttlesworth, but maybe there’s a reason other phones don’t have a bunch of different gesture controls: because it ultimately gets too confusing. At this point, I’m still unsure if there’s any kind of traditional home screen or any efficient way to pull up recently-used apps. iOS has the double-home-press multitasking menu, and Android has a dedicated button for recent apps. The Ubuntu Phone OS offers you a gesture to get back to the last app you used, but asks that you go and re-open the app if you leave it. Shuttlesworth touts gestures as a way to get back precious screen real estate, but I’d much rather have less room and an intuitive way to navigate than a full screen and a myriad of gestures that I have to memorize. By the time I was finished watching the video, I was thanking the heavens for the iPhone’s home button and home screen.

I’m always excited to see more competition in the mobile market, as newer, better OS features can force all competing companies to strive for a better product. That said, I have absolutely no idea where an Ubuntu Phone OS would fit in our mobile world today. Sure, Ubuntu users may find the prospect of a phone designed around the desktop OS they use interesting, but would everyone else? Especially in such a crowded field — let’s not forget that we have iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry already in the mix. Android is the open alternative to Apple’s iOS, and Windows Phone lies somewhere in between as a gated OS that can run on different types of hardware. BlackBerry is just hanging on and Research In Motion is betting it all on BlackBerry OS 10. Perhaps the Ubuntu Phone OS could unseat RIM’s OS from the #4 spot, but with all the momentum the top three have on their side in terms of user bases and apps, I can’t see Canonical’s entry making a dent anytime soon.

But, as some football fans might say, that’s why they play the game. We’ll see how Ubuntu’s Phone OS fares when it lands on an actual device later this year or next year.

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