Canonical’s new Ubuntu mobile OS isn’t yet available as a package download to anyone interested in trying it out, but it holds great promise. The target market is equipment manufacturers who can use it to run both high-end and entry-level devices. While none are available yet, Samsung has promised Galaxy Nexus owners there’ll soon be a test package for them to download.
Some pundits have questioned the viability of yet another mobile OS in an already crowded marketplace, while others applaud Canonical’s innovation. Personally, I first thought a new Ubuntu phone might be a minor success. But whether it’s a late entry or not, we could see a lot of budget devices running what really is a slick OS. Still, before the first handsets are released around 2014, the Ubuntu app market has to show exceptional growth.
As a first step, Canonical’s launched an app marketplace ahead of the OS. Commercial software is allowed, as are upgrades and add-ons. Right now, there’s no charge for joining the developer program, though a 20 percent transaction fee is required on sales. It’s a good time to get ahead of the curve and sign up.
Ubuntu Mobile isn’t the same as Ubuntu for Android. It’s a completely new OS based on the same Linux Kernel Android uses. (Ubuntu and Android also share many of the same drivers.) It’s been designed to run on lower-powered, non-premium hardware, thus giving handset manufacturers more distribution options. Making Ubuntu an option on less-than-powerful devices may prove to be an advantage.
Tools You Need
You’ll have to use Ubuntu to develop your apps here since other Linux distributions, Microsoft’s Windows, and Apple’s iOS aren’t supported. However, you may be able to run Ubuntu as a virtual machine and do your work that way.
The development platform for Ubuntu phone apps requires three things: Ubuntu, Qt 5, and the Ubuntu QML Toolkit Preview. Complete instructions for setting up your development environment are provided on the Ubuntu Developers website.
Native or Web Apps?
You can develop native or Web-based apps. Canonical is betting on the future of HTML5. Web apps can be re-purposed for Ubuntu mobile, and you can use the cross-platform Web development platform PhoneGap to create some stunning work.
A major selling point for Canonical’s approach is the ability to re-use your code. You can develop apps for the desktop, then add support for other form factors (though only phones for now). All this makes the notion of “develop once, distribute everywhere” a real possibility. Plus, it will be possible to dock an Ubuntu phone to a desktop machine and use it as either a thin client or full-fledged desktop. The lines between mobile and desktop are sure to be blurred further should the docking process prove to be seamless and easy.
Unlike the long-suffered early days of Android design, Ubuntu phone’s design guidelines were established early in the platform’s life cycle. Initial iterations of the Ubuntu touch interface have already received high marks. Using the whole screen and a familiar swipe action (dubbed “edge magic”), apps are easily accessible. There are no hardware “back” buttons, only soft keys that can easily be hidden at the bottom of the screen. Regularly used apps are kept in a handy app drawer on the left sidebar and can easily be hidden with a swipe. An upward swipe displays menu actions at the bottom of the screen.
More than 1,400 people responded to Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon’s call for core app developers. If ever you wanted to be an early contributor to a project before it reaches critical mass — or even becomes mildly popular — now’s your chance. Remember, registration in the developers program is free.