Ubuntu launches on mobile – but without some key elements

Thursday sees the release of Ubuntu “Saucy Salamander” 13.10, the first version of the Linux distribution to explicitly support smartphones and tablets, as well as desktop PCs and servers. There aren’t any Ubuntu mobile devices on sale yet – London-based sponsor company Canonical hopes these will arrive in 2014 – but there’s a long list of Android(s goog) devices that can be flashed to use it.

However, while this is the first really touch-friendly version of Ubuntu, it’s incomplete in its mobile incarnation. For a start, there are hardly any smartphone or tablet apps for it yet, as is to be expected at this early stage. But there’s a far greater omission: Ubuntu Touch’s ability to run as full-blown desktop Ubuntu when hooked up to an HDMI monitor and Bluetooth keyboard.

Little Mir made

This is because Ubuntu’s new mobile-friendly display server, Mir, is not quite ready yet for the operating system’s desktop flavor. It was supposed to replace the legacy X Window System in 13.10, but “outstanding technical difficulties” mean it will only land in the next version, 14.04, which is due in April. Hopefully.

“The desktop at this stage doesn’t fully support the new graphics architecture that is now enabled on the phone OS,” Richard Collins, Canonical’s product manager for mobile, told me. “It’s something we are working very rapidly towards.”

“At this stage we are looking to have Mir running on [the 14.04] release, probably initially as more of a specific release for [manufacturers] that feel they are in a position to produce hardware that wants that same graphics architecture to run. The full release, in terms of the main codebase that’s fully open, will be from 14.04 and beyond.”

Continuous development

According to Collins, Thursday’s mobile release is “fully optimized and the base by which hardware manufacturers can begin to fully evaluate and plan hardware integration,” but it doesn’t offer users a real alternative to Android (which is also based on Linux) just yet. Apart from the absence of apps, there are also still “areas of usability that need to be addressed” – these are being focus-grouped.

“The features and services now on our roadmap that will eventually take that capability to something comparable to Android can now be developed and run from here on,” he said. “We will continue to make updates available almost on a daily basis.”

So what does the adventurous flasher get if they install Ubuntu on their phone or tablet now? A Webkit browser, for one, as well as a phone dialler, messaging app, photo gallery app, and of course system settings. There’s no document viewer yet, though.

“We have a very aggressive timeframe to deliver more consumer-oriented services,” Collins said.

Partnership hopes

Outside the Linux community, those who have heard of Ubuntu’s mobile aspirations probably found out thanks to Canonical’s ambitious but doomed crowdfunding drive, where the firm tried to raise $32 million to make a sort of concept superphone called the Ubuntu Edge. While it didn’t even get halfway towards that goal, it did manage to set a record for the most money pledged in a crowdfunding campaign to date, and it also won Bloomberg’s backing.

As I argued at the time of the campaign’s end, the drive did give it something to show off to potential hardware partners. “[The Edge campaign] was very successful in getting a lot of attention,” Collins said on Thursday. “Hardware partners don’t want us to go independently and focus on our own hardware.”

But Canonical hasn’t just been talking to hardware manufacturers – Collins suggested well-known services including Evernote and Dropbox had also expressed interest in developing apps for the mobile OS. “Our basis is now being able to make that whole development process much easier for them,” he said.

Ubuntu actually has quite an interesting mobile app distribution model called Scopes, which surfaces apps via contextual search rather than through an app store as such, so I’m keen to see that in practice once there’s more to download.

And is it forkable?

I also asked Collins whether we might down the line see new mobile operating systems based on Ubuntu Touch, in much the same way as Amazon(s amzn)’s mobile OS is based on Android and – on the desktop – Linux distributions such as Mint are based on Ubuntu.

“If other distributions want to base their distros upon our model then they’re completely open to do that,” he replied. “It’s a question of the services they want to deliver on their distribution and whether or not our graphics architecture is able to run the services that they want — they will have to be adapted… But how you would actually commercialize that and support that is a massive overhead for anyone to take on, and you’re obviously competing with all the other OSs.”

The same can be said for Ubuntu itself. Its hybrid mobile-desktop plans hold a lot of potential, but let’s how quickly development goes now, and whether those hardware and software partnerships materialize as planned.