Monday, August 20, 2012

Here's what Ubuntu on Android looks like. Could you use it?

Ubuntu wants to put a full Linux desktop on your Android phone. It works, but does it work for you?

When Ubuntu for Android was announced in late February, the general reaction and news coverage felt familiar. Whenever a company announces the Future of Computing, but doesn’t show said future device operated by actual humans, there’s a pause, a “Huh,” and then the sound of new browser tabs being opened to look at anything else.
But now there’s video of Ubuntu on Android running at a trade show, warts and all. It’s compelling, because it does not look like the employee from Canonical, Ubuntu’s corporate backer, is running any special demonstrations or using specially configured hardware. There’s an Android model set into a dock, a cable running to a monitor, and a version of Ubuntu’s free Linux-based desktop running. All the standard Linux apps are there, LibreOffice takes the usually disheartening amount of time to load—but then you notice that you can text, launch Android apps, and take phone calls through that Android phone while you’re in the desktop app. Pretty neat.

Let’s back up a bit. Ubuntu on Android is a concept Ubuntu is trying to sell to Android phone makers, enterprise-level customers, and peripheral manufacturers. You can see Ubuntu’s pitch and explanation of features and specifications on their site. The idea is that a full, slightly modified installation of the Ubuntu desktop is stashed on the storage of a multi-core Android phone. Whenever that phone is set in a dock and connected to a monitor, that Ubuntu installation comes to life and runs. The Android phone becomes just a very small computer, and the owner gets the full desktop experience of keyboard, mouse, and big screen.
The snappiness and space depend on each phone, of course, but with most major new Android smartphones arriving with at least dual cores and at least 32 GB of space available to users, Ubuntu is a feasible option. Watch the demonstration video, and you’ll see that browsers open fairly quickly, and app switching is fairly fast. This has something to do with the solid-state nature of Android storage, but also Ubuntu’s relatively lightweight nature. There are definitely delays, especially when switching from Android to Ubuntu and back again from dock plugging, but it’s early-stage software that can hopefully be optimized.

Okay, great, it works—who’s going to use it? Ubuntu wants to sell companies on the idea of providing employees with docks and monitors as a space-conserving, money-saving alternative to giving everyone desktops. They also suggest that a docked Ubuntu/Android device can “Satisfy demand for first PCs to families in emerging economies with no legacy wired connectivity.” There’s a “clamshell” pitch to be made, much like the small but growing market for iPad cases and docks that offer laptop-like keyboards. Finally, handset makers can pitch along the lines of “Buy a phone, get an entire computer for free!” (goofy emphasis mine).
I’ll definitely want to try it, but then again, I’m an incorrigible nerd and open-source admirer. There’s some nice phone/desktop interactivity offered in an Ubuntu/Android setup, but selling productive people who have no patience or proclivity for terminal typing will be tough. Tougher, perhaps, than selling either Ubuntu or Android alone.
It’s an interesting time to be an Ubuntu or Android enthusiast. Can you see yourself relying on an Android phone as your single computing device?