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Ubuntu on Android and How it Will Change the Landscape of Computing

February 22, 2012
Next week, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Canonical will show the world Ubuntu on Android, its next move in the strategy to expand the reach of Ubuntu Linux across multiple devices.

The Ubuntu on Android project aims to unleash the computing power of modern smartphones, by enabling them to act as fully-fledged PCs. Just think about it. Any Tegra 2 device has enough brainpower to compete successfully with older laptops. And the upcoming quad-core chips will put even more computing oomph right into your pocket. So why not take advantage of your Android device and use it as a PC? All you need is a dock to connect to a monitor, plus a Bluetooth keyboard and a mouse.

A full Ubuntu desktop on your Android phone – this is precisely what Canonical plans to do. Dock in your Android device, and Ubuntu instantly pops up on your monitor. Dock it out, and Android takes over. Adding a PC operating system on top of a mobile OS may seem a little counter-intuitive, but remember that Android and Ubuntu originate from the same Linux kernels, so they are more compatible than you think.

How it works and why it’s brilliant


What Canonical tries to do with Ubuntu on Android is brilliant in its simplicity. In fact, it kind of makes you wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner.The full Ubuntu desktop OS will run on your phone, side by side with Android, both powered by the same kernel. Depending on the context, one of the operating systems will take over. But here’s the catch – Android and Ubuntu will talk to each other. So instead of having two contact lists, two email inboxes, two calendars, and two sets of documents, you’ll enjoy a single cohesive computing experience. No more syncing and switching. Just two ways to use your device.

Canonical clearly pitches Ubuntu on Android to professionals and business users, which makes perfect sense if you think about how cumbersome it is to carry laptops around, connect to VPNs, synchronize multiple devices, and, in general, to work on the go. For mobile professionals, an Ubuntu-running Android device can replace not only the business laptop and Blackberry, but also the day-to-day office computer.

Canonical already signed up Citrix, VMware, Adobe, and others to give professional users all the tools they need to work on the go, including the cornerstone of enterprise productivity, the Microsoft Office suite.

A better computing experience

Professionals may be the target group for now, but Ubuntu on Android has the potential to be game-changing for everyone. Imagine a future in which every hotel room (and every office and class room) is fitted with a wide monitor and a docking station. Instead of installing your laptop or checking your mail on your smartphone, you just plug in your device and your trusty desktop OS is there, waiting for you.

Marketers have been abusing the “PC in your pocket” concept for years, to the point where it became a cliché that no one really believed in. Ubuntu on Android can finally breathe life in the idea.

Yes, for now, smartphones still have some catching up to do to reach the level of performance provided by a modern laptop. But we’re getting there. Add some 4G goodness to the mix, and you have everything you need to turn the vision of a truly mobile PC into reality.


Wait, isn’t this old news?

Admittedly, the idea of using a smartphone as the nervous system of a “dumb” shell isn’t novel. Asus toyed with the concept, with its Padfone and the Transformer line. Motorola has their own Webtop technology, which is very similar to the Ubuntu on Android concept. Android 5.0 may also include a built-in docking mode.

But there’s one big difference that, I think, sets apart Ubuntu on Android from Motorola’s idea. The Webtop is an environment based on Ubuntu Linux, but it has little to do with a real desktop operating system. The number of applications that can be used is severely limited, the interface is simplistic (basically a blown-up smartphone UI), and, in general, the usability of the Webtop is limited to browsing the Web and using Web applications.

On the other side, Ubuntu on Android is a fully-fledged desktop operating system, not a pale imitation. And, by connecting and sharing with Android, Ubuntu provides a much better user experience than any of the solutions explored so far.

Convergence is the name of the game

Let’s take a step back to check out the big picture that’s gradually forming in the OS landscape.

Last week, we heard rumors about Android 5.0 Jelly Bean borrowing from Chrome OS, and gaining dual-boot capabilities. We also know that Microsoft wants Windows 8 to be a universal operating system that will power PCs, tablets, and smartphones. Apple is moving in the same direction – they recently dropped the “Mac” from the name of OS X Mountain Lion, and appear to be merging a lot of functionality from iOS into OS X. And now, Canonical announced their efforts to put Ubuntu in modern smartphones, and, eventually, to replace traditional PCs.

The trend is clear – all the significant players are trying to create operating systems that run consistently across screens of all sizes. Mobile computing slowly becomes mainstream computing, and for those who are able to gain a solid foothold in the post-PC landscape, the future is bright. The gold rush is on.