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Why the Ubuntu Tablet Is a Winner

The mobile versions of Ubuntu are impressive, but the OS may have more success on tablets than on smartphones.
Posted February 25, 2013
By

Matt Hartley


At the time of this article, Canonical's efforts with Ubuntu have done wonders for gaining new adopters for Linux. Sadly however, Canonical's efforts have yet to make the company profitable.

Despite their financial shortcomings thus far, Canonical is bullish about their efforts with the Ubuntu phone and the Ubuntu tablet. Recently I was given the opportunity to try both firsthand.

After spending some time getting to know the interface and understanding the core back-end, I was shocked to find that in many regards the Ubuntu developer preview had a ton going for it. In this article, I will share why I think this could be a winning alternative to Android on the tablet.

An Amazing User Interface

The one thing that struck me most about the Ubuntu phone and tablet developer preview was how polished it felt. Everything felt really smooth and natural to my eyes.

Now this isn't to say that I didn't see some issues. Switching to any new smartphone can be a bit of a learning curve, and the Ubuntu phone won't be any exception there. Getting to the applications is easy enough from the launcher and the dash; however, figuring out how to close the software and other related tasks will take some getting used to.

I also found the color scheme of the user interface to be attractive. Gone are the days of Ubuntu brown. Instead, I enjoyed the benefits of a clean layout of colors with crisp icons and placeholders for future apps.

Using the Best from Android

Ubuntu developers have decided to use Android device drivers to allow Ubuntu to detect and run on existing Android hardware. What makes this so compelling is that existing Android tablets can run Ubuntu now without waiting for any specialized hardware down the road. This assists Ubuntu in gaining early tablet adoption now, even though Ubuntu for the phone/tablet is still only a developer preview release at this point.

Another notable feature Ubuntu is borrowing from Android is SurfaceFlinger. At its core, SurfaceFlinger is a compositor which makes the Ubuntu display you see on your Android device possible. SurfaceFlinger was designed for Android, but as it turns out, it's also a nice match for Ubuntu devices as well. In other words, no, you will not see Xorg or Wayland on Ubuntu Touch devices.

With Ubuntu using the existing Google-supported options from Android, this means less development overhead. And that means a greater likelihood of Ubuntu for the phone and tablet meeting their target release date of October 2013.

More Screen Means Better Functionality

I see Ubuntu shining more on a tablet than a phone. With greater screen real estate available, Ubuntu users will be better able to enjoy functionality such as the multi-tasking feature called side-stage. The idea behind side-stage is that a user can run one tablet app while running a phone-designed app, alongside of it — all on the same display. This kind of visual functionality requires a tablet screen, as a phone simply lacks the space required to make it work.

Another consideration is media enjoyment. While I might be inclined to listen to music on an Ubuntu phone, a tablet provides a better viewing experience for watching video.

When I was testing out the tablet version of Ubuntu, I noticed what appeared to be an icon indicating that I might be able to expand or even push content off the device and onto something else. Perhaps we'll see an "Airplay"-like option for Ubuntu in the near future? I suppose anything is possible.

Tablet vs. Phone

Smartphones are very personal for casual users. Features and functionality are important. But the one issue that we can't ignore is  smartphone ecosystems.

For example, back when I was using the iPhone, I had a lot of money tied up in software specific to that platform. So when I switched to Android, I took a fairly significant financial hit in lost software. In addition to the loss of software by switching platforms, I was asked to re-up my mobile contract as well. Not a big deal, as I was happy with the carrier anyway. But this meant continuing with a data plan, which can get pricey rather quickly.

Tablets also face many of these same issues. The biggest issue that tablets share with smartphones is being part of the same old locked-in ecosystem of software. Migrate to a new platform, and you lose access to said software. Where Ubuntu has an opportunity to shine is in finding ways to allow Android users to not feel like they must leave their Android apps behind.

Because tablets are used a little differently than smartphones, I see users sticking with their existing smartphone ecosystems and embracing Ubuntu on a tablet as a brand new experience. By taking this approach, it allows new Ubuntu users to embrace the platform without completely dropping their existing iOS or Android app library for their smartphone. Introducing Ubuntu on a tablet as the primary focus means users can discover what Ubuntu has to offer without needing to completely rethink their legacy mobile experience.

Ubuntu tablets also allow users to communicate, play games and simply explore a rich tablet experience without falling into the usual Android vs. iOS trap. If I was running the Ubuntu Touch project, I would be looking to offer a tablet experience that has yet to take place for most people. Imagine user experiences that can be started on the flat dimensions of a tablet, then pushed onto Ubuntu TV or a Ubuntu-powered computer.

I think Ubuntu's success won't hinge on mirroring applications found on other platforms; it'll be about Ubuntu allowing you to start an activity on one device and move it to another seamlessly.

Final Thoughts

Think activities and experiences, not legacy applications and vendor lock-in. That kind of personal freedom will likely be what the Ubuntu Touch team will be striving for. And as to whether this will happen most successfully on a phone or tablet remains to be seen.

I believe that many of the geekier users will be inclined to dual-boot their Android phones and run both operating systems. Casual users will be more inclined to migrate to a tablet that allows them to take their Ubuntu experiences from one device to the next with a mere swipe of the finger.




Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, smartphone, tablet, mobile device


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