Canonical announces Ubuntu phones. No, seriously.

Canonical, the benevolent dictators behind the most consumer-friendly version of Linux, have announced a new, mobile version of their Ubuntu distro and their intent to release Ubuntu phones. Make all the "year of Linux on desktop" or "yet another LiMo" jokes you want, but as someone who loves mobile software, I'm interested to see what Canonical brings to the table. Succeed or fail, new interface concepts, new features, and new approaches to mobile computing helps every platform, even if only by showing what's possible -- and what isn't.

My quick take is that, like BlackBerry 10, Canonical is betting heavily on gesture-based interface, without any clear or consistent hinting system to improve discoverability and usability. That's the least of the challenges they'll face in bringing their concept to market, however, much less securing a significant share of the market.

Check out their product site, however, to see what else they have up their sleeves, and check out Jerry Hildenbrand's write up on Android Central for excellent take on the potential and pitfalls of Ubuntu on phones.

Then come back and let me know what you think. Does Canonical have a shot in world where everyone from webOS to Microsoft has struggled?

Source: Ubuntu via Android Central

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, ZEN and TECH, MacBreak Weekly. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter,, Google+.

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There are 13 comments. Add yours.

CBDrew says:

”Does Canonical have a shot in world where everyone from webOS to Microsoft has struggled?”
I think it's ”...from webOS to Microsoft have struggled?”

By the way, great opinion, I think if Canonical pushes the software with Ubuntu phones scheduled for early 2014 they're missing a huge opportunity because there's BlackBerry 10 around the corner, Firefox OS and new versions of the current operating systems. They have an opportunity but maybe they'll remain as a minor player in the mobile market because of the 2014 launch. I'm looking forward to BB10, and as I've studied that OS I think it's pretty gesture heavy but in a way that's more understandable for the user, Ubuntu, to me, feels very gesture heavy and a little confusing.

kquilz says:

As a matter of fact, I believe the original grammar is proper. In the sentence, "everyone" is the noun, and "has" is the verb relating to that noun. What he's missing is a couple of commas. The sentence should read, "Does Canonical have a shot in a world where everyone, from webOS to Microsoft, has struggled?"

Rene Ritchie says:

Commas are optional, with the exception of smash commas, which are always required.

(Seriously, arguing grammar on tech posts is like arguing shoes in a porno -- you might be right, but you're seriously missing the bigger picture.)

Dionte says:

It looks nice, I like the interface and ease of use.

Dev from tipb says:

The article suggests you did not mean it that way, but the headline drips with unwarranted snark.

I use Ubuntu as my primary desktop at work, so I am curious as to what they can bring to phones, though I am skeptical of a gesture-only interface.

bb10_fan says:

"I am skeptical of a gesture-only interface." and why is that?

Dev from tipb says:

I should have clarified - I am skeptical of a primarily hidden gesture interface. Gestures are not immediately discoverable, because there often is no visual cue they are available. Consequently, a user has to find them in a manual, a tutorial, or stumble upon them in order to know they exist. If there is no other way to perform an action, it frustrates the user, no matter how elegant the gestures are.
It is not really a gesture problem so much as that initial discovery process - look at the heavy volume of complaints about Win 8 searching and start menu. Their implementations are actually somewhat cool, but users just don't know they are there because nothing on the screen explicitly tells them so.

So I am not skeptical of gestures specifically, just of Canonical's ability to put in the proper design affordances to make those gestures easily discoverable when the vision appears to eschew visual cues. Even Apple struggles with this at times; there is a reason Cupertino has spent years and millions of dollars on ads that are primarily close-ups of their products doing actions. They are not just marketing fluff - for tasks that otherwise have no on-screen cues, the ads explain and ingrain the idea that a two finger swipe or a pinch to zoom is natural, effectively training their users in basic tasks before purchase. It is brilliant, but costly. I doubt Canonical has the same money or time to develop a similar strategy.

As an enthusiastic Linux/Ubuntu user, I hope to be proven wrong.

Rene Ritchie says:

I get how it could read that way, but it was meant as the opposite.

I'm also skeptical of gesture-centric interfaces. BlackBerry claims they'll be doing a ton of pre-emptive education so people will understand how to gesture navigate BB10, but that to me shows a problem with discoverability.

Have as many gestures as you can, but hint it heavily, or provide visual cues to drive it.

Won't know for sure until I try it, though.

Dev from tipb says:

I'm a little less skeptical after seeing the hands on at Engadget, as it looks like there are only 4 new conventions, one for swiping in from each edge. That may be a small enough set to educate/hint easily, but it will still take some work to get that across to the average Joes, if they even care to go after them, or just stay with the geeks/mavens. It is definitely a new take in the phone space, though, so I hope they succeed - the more competing visions, the better.

suitjackets says:

This actually looks amazing. It has so many obvious solutions to problems that iPhone and Android face. I personally will be checking one of these out when it comes out.

Also, is that a Nexus?

Ziltoid says:

I like the gestures and the no buttons but it still seems awkward for some reason. This also looks very choppy and I have a feeling its going to be more annoying than anything else when you try to do something, and it does another. I could be wrong and this looks like a very early build so I hope it really doesnt look like this. Either way, why not just make a damn Home Launcher for Android then? Its what it is essentially.

Dev from tipb says:

Engaget has a hands-on video with it which is a bit more informative (and shorter) on day-to-day functions of the phone itself. Looks very interesting:

SockRolid says:

Re: "Make all the "year of Linux on desktop" or "yet another LiMo" jokes you want..."

Ubuntu: more open than Android!

"Linux is the open-est!"

Open Gangnam Style.

Terribly lame jokes. I know. But oh so appropriate.