As someone who scours the internet every single day for the latest news in photography, technology, and design, there’s one major release coming up which seems to be going under the radar for the most part. It especially amazes me the designer and developer community is yet to truly picked it up besides a few articles here and there. What I’m referring to here is Ubuntu for phones.
Even as a twenty-year old, I remember the first time I saw this Linux distro on a computer. It was my first experience with a non-Microsoft PC and the entire concept of it was as intriguing as it was foreign. When I saw the initial video showing Ubuntu for phones, I experienced the exact same feeling. From the custom typeface gracing every piece of text to the distinctive geometrically based graphics, it blew me away.
Let me first say this, a little disclaimer if you will, before I carry on with my article. I am an Apple user in every regard; I own an iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I love the philosophy behind the creation and implementation behind Apple products. When you combine the quality, aesthetics, and overall ecosystem they have built, Apple products are absolutely perfect for my needs in every regard.
With the above being said, I continuously keep the latest version of Ubuntu running via VMWare Fusion on my iMac since I purchased it. With each iteration it gets better in every regard and 12.0 really stepped up. In many regards, I would consider Ubuntu ahead of both Apple and Microsoft with their desktop operating system. I may go more into depth in the future, but for the time being, I’ll sum up why I don’t use it in two reasons: The app selection is minuscule and the ecosystem isn’t there; there isn’t a mobile device where everything “just works.”
As I said just above, I truly believe Ubuntu is ahead of Apple and Microsoft in many regards within the desktop ecosystem. There’s no doubt in my mind they will be able to do just the same with Ubuntu for phones. What they’ve shown so far is incredible and there is only room for growth.
Two mobile operating systems rule the market as of now and as simple market knowledge can tell you, competition spurs innovation. Android is pushing some limits, but in doing so cause an extreme amount of fragmentation and left vulnerabilities in the form of the lacking Google Play Store and other areas. Apple on the opposite end is becoming nothing less than stagnant with iOS. Incremental upgrades are nice, but when a company who previously pushed the boundaries in every regard for the past decade goes through five iterations of their mobile operating systems without any huge changes, the consumers – or at least pro-sumers – will become bored with it, as we’re always looking for the latest and greatest. We’re looking at The Jetsons up in the sky while we feel iOS is still using its feet for brakes; Fred Flintstone-ing it.
With both Android and Apple showing their pitfalls more now than ever, Ubuntu stumbled upon the opportunity to rise up out of nowhere and disrupt the market. It isn’t going to be an easy task by any means and in a market dominated by a borderline duopoly, the barrier to entry is incredibly difficult. This leads me to the three main points I feel will determine the success of Ubuntu in the mobile OS Market.
In order of significance, I’ll break down the three main elements Ubuntu needs to focus on in order to turn this into a golden egg.
Ubuntu is not a hardware company as I’m sure you’re aware. Thus, they’ll have to resort on OEMs to produce the devices which will run their operating system. This is a tricky road to navigate, as it will inevitably lead to significant fragmentation for developers. Ubuntu posted online their requirements for both entry-level Ubuntu smartphones and high-end Ubuntu smartphones with hopes of creating a standard among the devices which will run their OS.
If you already make handsets that run Android, the work needed to adopt Ubuntu will be trivial
While this is the obvious first step, there are plenty of other factors I feel Ubuntu should enforce to some degree or another; two main ones being battery life and data speed. Being openly accessible is the entire philosophy behind Ubuntu, so there’s an understanding of the minimal restrictions, but it may or may not com back to bite them in the butt.
Ubuntu for Phones seems very CPU intensive and even with the low-end devices, the last thing you want is lag of any sort. Their requirements seem as though they should cover all the bases, but we can’t be sure until there are more developer devices getting tested and run-through.
Something else I noticed is Ubuntu touts the option for handset makers to add their own “skins” to Ubuntu without “breaking compatibility with the broader ubuntu app ecosystem.” This is what a fair share of Android handset makers did with varieties such as HTC’s Sense. This is a ballsy move as time it creates room for hardware manufacturers to make a sad excuse for device improvements.
While I would consider this almost more important than hardware, you can’t run an operating system without the device to do it on, ergo this is second on the list. As was evident with the insane adoption of iOS, developers – or lack thereof – will make or break a platform. Ubuntu is doing an incredible job making sure everything is as easy to access and implement as possible.
An interesting point Ubuntu makes within their online documentation is “The Standard Android development environment is Ubuntu.” This is an extremely powerful statement when you look at the possibility for developers to make the jump to developing to Ubuntu. While Android lacks the amount of quality apps iOS offers, the option for easy development on behalf of developers will get the ecosystem rolling at least a little.
Already, big names such as EA and Valve committed to Ubuntu development and although we can’t be sure of what they’ll bring to the platform, it shows Ubuntu already grabbed the attention of some big name developers, potential game-changers.
The final point I’ll hit on regarding apps is the fact developers have access to Ubuntu One, the cloud infrastructure Ubuntu hopes will provide an “integrated identity” between services and devices. Unlike iCloud, data of any type can be added to the Ubuntu One cloud, allowing anything from passwords, to payment methods to be synced from phone to computer. This would be the exact type of feature capable of defining a successful ecosystem across the mobile/desktop platforms.
Despite their impressive documentation, there is plenty of room for things to go awry. Whether devices unable properly run the operating system or something else, Ubuntu needs to be willing to look at what is wrong, find a solution, and stick to their guns when implementing change. There’s a fine balance between being open and also wise enough to close doors when vital decisions have to be made.
When adversity strikes in any form, Ubuntu needs to be able to adapt by whatever means they deem necessary and grow through it. It’s a fine line to walk, but if done successfully, I feel they can thread the needle between the overly open platform Android is and the “walled garden” iOS is.
Now comes the part which applies most to our vision here at The Industry: Aesthetics, interface design, and overall user experience. Ubuntu for phones seems to take bits and pieces of UI elements from every previous platform, taking note of Picasso’s well-known quote.
“Good artist copy; great artists steal.”
The overall look of Ubuntu for phone is – as I stated above – a conglomeration of WebOS, Android, and iOS. The interface focuses on rich, unique typography, simple overlays, and icons seeming to be a combination between an ellipse and a rounded rectangle.
It’s a very appealing approach to the interface. The titles specifying each page are very reminiscent of the original Zune UI while the rounded squares and rectangles – from here on out referred to as parallameoba – are very much similar to the what WebOS’ card layout looked like.
If I was to summarize the ubiquitous characteristics within Ubuntu for mobile, I would do so in the following manner. Rich aesthetic subtlety.
PS: I searched ten minutes for the technical name of a parallelogram type shape with rounded edges and I came up empty. The shape looks very much like a rounded rectangle, but the curve seems to be more dynamic than such. This is one of maybe two times the internet failed me.
One key point they make right off the top of the design page is the use of gestures to navigate the interface. Every edge of the phone is used as a gestural starting point, allowing you to go from app to app in a fluid transition.
I’ve said before gestures are becoming more and more significant and Ubuntu opted to build almost their entire platform around it. People will complain there’s no affordance, but as mentioned in yet another article of mine, animation offers affordance in many regards and Ubuntu seems to have utilized those hints towards what some would call unnatural gestures.
(A lack of) Buttons
One aspect I am extremely keen on is the focus on content over controls. When using apps, Ubuntu utilizes every inch of screen real estate by hiding every control possible. To reveal or hide apps, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen; to show the customizable dock, you swipe in from the side; to bring up the controls within an application, you do a short swipe up.
In John Maeda‘s The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda speaks of an acronym aimed at reducing clutter in order to create a more simplistic approach towards anything, “SHE.” Ubuntu utilizes the “H” within this acronym, hiding. They hide the complexity and distractions of the interface by making them invisible until called upon. It’s a brilliant method which can also be summed up in the following quite by none other than Dieter Rams.
Good Design is Unobtrusive.
While some think he did not mean it in such literal terms, it’s easy to see how it can apply to what Ubuntu is doing.
Notice I chose summary over conclusion. I’ve never consciously thought of the difference until I initially put conclusion to end this article. Conclusion means “to end or finish a process.” According to the definition, this article – or any other article for that matter – should never have a conclusion. For not only is Ubuntu for phones not finished, it’s barely begun. Ubuntu is a long way away from the days I played X-Moto in Mrs. Clayborn’s computer class in eighth grade.
Ubuntu for phones is opening up an entirely new opportunity for Ubuntu and in doing so could completely change the face of the mobile market. A plethora of things have to go just right, but with the right guidance through vision, awareness, and adaptability, it’s possible.
Developers have more incentive than ever to develop for this up and coming platform, be it through native means or web apps. With a steady backing of developers and an ecosystem of proficient applications, consumers – such as myself – will no longer have an excuse to not take the leap towards what may very well be the next competitor in the mobile operating system market.
As designers, the interface of Ubuntu for phone should get you more excited than ever. Conceptual designs created by you, floating around on Dribbble can now be implemented with more focus being put on your content instead of navigation. With HTML5 fully supported, anything from simple to power, complex web apps can become incredible tools for business or pleasure. If you choose the native route, Ubuntu for phone uses powerful, standard languages to make sure your vision comes to life.
The first thing I’m going to say before you scroll back up to the top is this mobile operating system needs a new name. “Ubuntu for phones” doesn’t cut it. Ubuntu Mobile sounds just fine in my book. Potentially “Ubu,” albeit a bit childish. If you have any good ideas, throw them out there.
The last thing is, yes, I am extremely enthusiastic about the potential Ubuntu is bringing to the market. I love iOS as much as the next creative, but it’s time for change. Whether it’s Android, iOS, or Ubuntu, I want to see change. Even if Ubuntu for phones fails miserably, it will bring about some much needed competition to the market. I’m excited to see where mobile platforms will be in a decade as the past five years alone have brought about innovation after innovation.
I would love to hear your thoughts about this article in any regard. Reply to it on Twitter, comment below, or send me a nasty email if such is your forte. I’ll be looking forward to other’s outlooks and opinions; yes, I am including you, Hacker News commenters.