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Ubuntu 13.04 preps for mobile convergence

Apr 25, 2013  |  Eric Brown
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Canonical released version 13.04 of its popular Ubuntu Linux distro, introducing a Developer Preview SDK for creating apps that run on the desktop as well as Ubuntu Touch-based smartphones and tablets. Ubuntu 13.04 (“Raring Ringtail”) offers a more lightweight memory footprint, faster boot, lower power consumption, faster graphics performance, and the debut of Canonical’s MIR display server.

In February, Ubuntu unveiled its Ubuntu Touch GUI platform and the first Ubuntu for Phones and Ubuntu for Tablets interfaces. Now with the release of Ubuntu 13.04 (“Raring Ringtail”), we are seeing the first major integration of features supporting a unified development environment for Ubuntu desktop, smartphone, tablet, and TV form-factors. Of particular note is a preview developer’s SDK (software development kit) supporting the Ubuntu Touch GUI underlying the new Ubuntu smartphone and tablet platforms.

In October, Canonical expects to integrate a stable Ubuntu for Phones with Ubuntu 13.10, compatible with the Android-based Nexus 4 and Nexus Phone. It will follow up with a native Ubuntu-based phone launch with the “convergence” release of Ubuntu 14.04, due on April 24, 2014 (see farther below for more on Ubuntu Touch).



Ubuntu for phones and tablets
(click images to enlarge)

The road to convergence began two years ago when Ubuntu introduced the controversial Unity desktop environment, but it picks up speed considerably with Ubuntu 13.04. Even embedded developers with little interest in Canonical’s plans for Ubuntu smartphones, tablets, and TVs should find Ubuntu to be more amenable to operating on limited resource hardware.

According to Canonical, Ubuntu 13.04 offers improved graphics performance, with significantly faster response times in casual use. It also offers a shorter boot time, said to be down to 40 seconds on an x86-based desktop PC.

Just as important to Ubuntu’s mobile future is a reduced memory footprint claimed to be as much as 50MB smaller. Power management is also said to be improved.
 

Developer SDK and MIR

Ubuntu 13.04 includes the first Developer Preview SDK for building native applications that run across desktop PCs as well as future Ubuntu Touch-based smartphones and tablets. Developers can “make a single application for all Ubuntu form factors and publish it in the Ubuntu Software Centre with a single upload,” stated Canonical.

The SDK is being released with an experimental version of Canonical’s next generation MIR display server, which the company says is essential for the successful deployments of universal apps across divergent form-factors. In early March, as it released the Ubuntu 13.04 beta, Canonical set off yet another controversy in the Ubuntu community by announcing it was switching from X.org to MIR for its windowing environment. This in turn was a switch from Canonical’s earlier plan to switch from X to Wayland. The company concluded Wayland could not smoothly scale across platforms as well as its own homegrown MIR server

A MIR-based, Ubuntu Touch-ready “Unity Next” environment will be integrated into the platform-convergent Ubuntu 14.04 LTS release due a year from now. Unity Next will be rebuilt using the Qt UI framework and its QML (Qt Meta-Object-Language) Javascript language.

Both Mir and Wayland are faster and less complex than the aging X.org, and more compatible with Qt. They also add support for accelerated graphics. Wayland, however, has trouble with hardware-based compositors, and is less flexible in adapting to new input methods such as gesture, according to Canonical. MIR is said to be more flexible and “protocol agnostic.”

Many of these claims have been challenged by some high-profile open source developers, led by Kristian Høgsberg. In part, this resistance may be due to an ongoing frustration with Canonical in continually reinventing the wheel, with in-house contributions like Unity and Mir increasingly trumping community offerings.

With the new SDK, however, more developers will be able to try out Mir for themselves, and see if it’s the right window on the converged future.
 

Raging Ringtails’s modest gifts

Beyond the new developer tools, and performance and battery improvements, Ubuntu 13.04 is a rather modest upgrade. Some of the key expected features, such as the “Smart Scopes” universal search function, have been bumped to 13.10.

A Unity 7 upgrade overhauls the Nautilus file manager, and there are several other fairly subtle UI changes. A new Photo Search Lens feature offers image searching, but it requires activating a controversial search function weighted toward Amazon.com results. On the Ubuntu Server side, the big news is the introduction of high-availability (HA) implementation of the OpenStack open source cloud platform, as well as scale-out storage functionality.
 

Ubuntu Touch background

Ubuntu for Phones and Ubuntu for Tablets share a common Ubuntu Touch GUI. The sleek, well-reviewed touch interface eschews buttons for touch controls and edge gestures from all sides of the device. It supports both native and HTML5-based web apps, and offers secure multiple accounts and Canonical’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) voice interface. In addition, Ubuntu for Tablets can run an unmodified Ubuntu for Phones app next to a tablet app using “side stage” multitasking (shown below).



Ubuntu side-stage multitasking
(click image to enlarge)

Both the phone and tablet implementations are offered in dual profiles, with the high end versions supporting both Intel Atom and ARM-Cortex-A9 system-on-chips. The tablet profile also supports quad-core Cortex-A15 SOCs and screen sizes up to 20 inches.

So far, no vendor or carrier partners have been announced for Ubuntu Touch devices, but they’re not likely to appear until at least April 2014, with the tablets likely following the first phones.

Ubuntu 13.04 is available now for free download. More information may be found at the Ubuntu download page. Ubuntu developer tools may be found on the Ubuntu Developer site.
 

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