Canonical, the company founded by Mark Shuttleworth and most famous for its open source Ubuntu Linux distribution, has announced that it intends to launch a version of its operating system aimed at smartphones.

Unveiled at an event in London last night, Ubuntu for Phones builds on work carried out by advertising giant Google adapting the Linux kernel for use on smartphones and tablets under its Android platform but adapts the Android driver layer for use with a different operating system - in this case, Ubuntu. The result, Canonical claimed at the event, is a fast, friendly operating system which can unlock the true potential of today's multi-core smartphone devices.

Part of the problem of modern smartphones, Canonical said, is the overhead inherent in most smartphone operating systems. Android, as a perfect example, relies heavily on a Java virtual machine (VM) for executing its applications - allowing for easy cross-device compatibility, but sacrificing performance to do so. Ubuntu for Phones, as Canonical's latest endeavour is entitled, is different: code runs natively on the ARM-architecture processor with no virtual machine getting in the way, while developers have the option of creating either high-speed native applications or HTML5 applications using a soon-to-be-released software development kit.

Canonical's use of its existing Ubuntu Linux distribution for the basis of Ubuntu for Phones has another advantage: according to Canonical, apps developed for Ubuntu for Phones will be able to run just fine on an Ubuntu desktop or laptop machine. As a result, developers can create a single app for cross-device use, and sell - or give away - said app through the company's integrated Ubuntu Software Centre.

Not that Ubuntu for Phones is just a port of the desktop-centric Ubuntu operating system and its icon-heavy Unity interface, however: while the Unity launch bar is present and correct, viewed using a side-swipe from the left-hand edge of the smartphone's screen, the company appears to have put significant effort into retooling its user interface for a small-screen touch-enabled device. Gesture support is enabled, with no requirement for phones to have any hardware buttons at all, while true multi-tasking and easy 'flinging' between applications is included in the initial feature set.

Perhaps most impressive is Canonical's promise that Ubuntu for Phones is, at its heart, a full implementation of Ubuntu. Connecting a keyboard, mouse and external display to a compatible smartphone, the company claims, will provide a desktop-like computing experience - potentially allowing users to carry just a single device with them that can cover all their computing needs.

That's something others in the industry will need to be convinced on, however - despite moderate success for companies offering similar gadgets, such as the Asus Padfone, and the growing number of convertible tablet/laptop devices on the market since the launch of Windows 8. Speaking to Custom PC late last year, Intel Fellow Jim Held warned of the difficulties in replacing the desktop with an ultra-portable all-in-one computing system like a smartphone: 'Expecting one form factor to be as good for all things as another form factor, I think, is challenging. A very small form factor is going to have thermal limits, and space limits, that are going to limit its performance,' Held explained.

'Everything turning into a cellphone, in terms of form factor, means leading to compromises that we really don't have to make. Why would you need to limit the capacity for storage, the compute, because of thermal and space limits, in order to do that? it's unnecessarily limiting, giving that you use a smartphone for certain kinds of activity, for viewing things, for communication, why would you want to make it also for creating content, editing videos - which is very demanding of performance - or limit your video editing capabilities to what could be fit into that form factor? I really don't see the need go quite that far.'

Canonical will clearly have to work hard to convince the industry to adopt its software, and it will have to do so while fighting against three of the biggest companies in the software world: Apple, which has much of the top-end of the smartphone market tied up with its iOS platform; Google, which shares the top-end with Apple and enjoys a big chunk of the budget and mid-range market to boot with Android; and Microsoft, which is gaining ground on rivals with successive releases of its Windows Phone platform.

Android, in particular, will be Ubuntu for Phones' biggest problem: building on the established and open-source Android driver layer, Ubuntu for Phones offers claimed compatibility with any smartphone currently running Google's mobile platform - meaning it's a direct competitor, something Google on which will be keeping a close eye. For now, however, it looks like Google won't have to worry unduly: Canonical's Ubuntu for Android project, announced last year, gained little traction in the market.

Thus far, Canonical hasn't released the Ubuntu for Phones software, promising to do so in the near future with both an installable image compatible with the Samsung-manufactured Galaxy Nexus smartphone and source code for developers to port to other devices. What the company has not yet announced, tellingly, is a partnership with a handset maker to get a device with Ubuntu pre-loaded into the market - although it claims to be investigating routes to this goal with a view to launching its first device by the end of the year.

More details are available on the Ubuntu website, or you can spend the next twenty-odd minutes listening to Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth sell the idea to you in the below video.


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