Why is the Ubuntu Team So Excited about Ubuntu for Phones?
13.10 represents a major step forward for the Ubuntu project, because the Ubuntu phone images feature a set of new technologies that solve many of the longstanding difficulties with Ubuntu distros. Specifically:
- Image based updates
- A complete SDK
- Application Isolation
- Click packages and click installer with app store
- Mir Display Server and Window Manager
- Unity 8
Image based updates
Image based updates are a new of getting updates on Ubuntu. In the past, all versions of Ubuntu (and on Ubuntu Server and Desktop for 13.10 and beyond) updates were done with apt. Apt is the tool for debian package management. It was capable of calculating which packages needed to be updated or upgraded, and then ran those updates. Apt works well on servers and desktops because it supports complicated dependencies. However, it also takes a lot of computing horsepower to compute the updates or upgrades, and due to it being complicated, could occasionally get into situations that needed to be fixed with some command line options.
Ubuntu needed to take much less energy and time to perform updates, and needed to be much more reliable. This is where image-based updates come in. The Ubuntu images for phones have a read only file system by default, and a specific partitioning scheme for the drives. User data and applications are kept on a separate partition from the underlying system. As a result, if our update servers know which build you are running, they have an exact copy of the system on the servers. So rather than calculating package upgrade paths on your computer, the server can simply calculate a binary diff and the phone downloads only the diff for the system. Ubuntu then applies the diff and reboots into the update image. This has the added benefit that the downloads of the updates are much smaller, since users only have to download what has changed.
This all happens over the air. You can access this function from the Updates panel of the system settings application. Note that the phone can still be put into “system builder mode” which allows a user full access to all of the power of Apt, if they want to hack on their phones.
A Complete SDK
Ubuntu for phones provides three ways of developing applications for end users:
- Web apps
- Phone gap
- Ubuntu SDK
Web apps and phone gap support is tried and true technology for delivering HTML 5 applications to end users and we are proud to offer these options to developers. But what if you want to write a native app that looks like the core Ubuntu applications? Ubuntu now offers an SDK which includes the QtCreator development environment, the Qt library, the Ubuntu UI Toolkit, and many Ubuntu services, such as the Friends API for writing socially connected apps.
Ubuntu on the phone runs applications under App Armour. App Armour is a kernel feature which ensures that processes are simply not able to access any resources to which they are not entitled. In this way, application are kept from interfering with each other or the underlying system in any way. This keeps the user safe from both malicious applications that may try to snoop on other applications, use services to which they are not entitled, or other naughtiness. Developers can write applications that interact with other applications, but only through strictly defined and secure APIs.
One result of this much higher level of isolation, is that applications do not need to go through the same degree scrutiny to ensure that they are safe. As such, we can publish new applications to stable releases orders of magnitude faster than ever before. It often takes less than 30 minutes for an application to be submitted, reviewed, and appear in the application store.
Ubuntu for phones offers a brand new and much simpler means of packaging and installing applications. For other Ubuntu images, apps needed to be packaged as debian files (.deb files). This required the developer to have significant skill in packaging in order to manage the dependencies.
Click packages are much simpler because applications can depend only upon the “base sdk” which is installed on all phones, or on libraries bundled directly with the application. Since click packages are uploaded to the store and run under application isolation, it is very easy and fast for an application developer to get their applications to users.
Mir Display Server and Window Manager
The Ubuntu Desktop has always depended on implementations of the X11 protocol (xorg). This technology is more than 20 years old and designed for very different systems than are available today. Between the complexity of the protocol and the drivers, it is a significant effort to deliver a stable and fast system to end users. Even with this effort, their systems sometime regress or break, especially if the users are using drivers from their GPU chip vendor. Writing a window manager on top of this protocol also turned out to be very complex, often due to differences in the implementations of APIs in the GPU drivers, and also due to complexities in the X11 protocol.
The Mir display server solves these problems by offering a simpler and more direct library to both GPU driver developers and Window Manager authors. Mir is also designed to work easily with existing Android drivers.
The Mir display server on Ubuntu for phones is carefully designed by the Ubuntu design team, and takes advantage of the simpler more direct Mir API to deliver faster development and a better user experience.
Mir display server and window manager are currently optimized for phones and to some degree tablets, but will grow over the next few releases to provide a full desktop experience as well.
Finally, Ubuntu phone images feature the latest version of the Ubuntu shell, called “Unity 8”. It features enhancements to the launcher and to indicators that make them very user friendly even when operated with just a thumb while holding a phone, as well as the latest iteration of the dash that includes scopes optimized for mobility, providing touch optimized access to music, video, and applications.
What is “Ubuntu Touch”?
“Ubuntu Touch” is the development codename for the special images of Ubuntu that were created to run on phones and tablets. There are some technical differences in terms of how the phones are updated, which apps can run and how they are installed, and the display server. However, these differences are small compared to the similarities. Officially, these images are simply named “Ubuntu”.
How Do I Get and Use Ubuntu on a Phone?
Ubuntu 13.10 will have images that work for the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 4. They are available in the normal places. However, phones require special steps for installing a new OS. Aside from the officially supported images, the community has created a set of ports for their own devices, you can find that list here: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Touch/Devices
Will Ubuntu Work on My Tablet?
We are making Ubuntu images for the first version of the Nexus 7 and the Nexus 10. These images are available alongside images for phones, and the installation experience is similar. However, please note that we in Ubuntu prioritized making Ubuntu working for phones for 13.10, so the tablet images are still in “early preivew stages” There are bugs and missing functionality. We plan to focus on tablets more fully for 14.04.
Is Ubuntu Finished for Phones?
Yes and no. We are proud that Ubuntu 13.10 is a complete 1.0 solution for powering your phone. Many of us have been using Ubuntu as our on our only phone for months. However, it does have one or two features that you may miss and that will be added very soon. For example, Ubuntu 13.10 does not have a lock screen when running on a phone. There are some settings, such as a convenient airplane mode that have not been implemented yet, but will be shortly.
Of course, we also have a list of enhancements and new features for the 14.04 as well!
If I Install Ubuntu on my Phone, How Will it be Supported?
The images for phones feature a new way to update that we call “image based updates”. For about a month after we release 13.10, expect to get updates for only the most critical bugs. However, after about a month, all users will be upgraded to the current development version. This will allow users to get the latest features and bug fixes without having to wait six months.
Can I Run my Favorite Application on My Phone?
This depends on the application. If your favorite app is a web app, then you are in luck. Ubuntu ships many web applications in a manner that is well integrated into the overall phone experience. Also, there is a good chance that your favorite application has a version made especially to run on phones running Ubuntu. However, applications that require a keyboard and mouse, or that require a toolkit that is not supported on Ubuntu will not run on the phone until it is ported.
Can I Run a Desktop from My Phone Like I’ve Seen in Demos?
This represents our ultimate goal for what what we call “convergence”, one device with all the functionality you need from various devices converged together. In 13.10 we have made great strides towards convergence. Most of the software running on Ubuntu for desktop images and Ubuntu for phone images is the same. However, Ubuntu does not yet have the capability for a phone to dock into a desktop, yet. We continue to work very hard toward this goal, and all of our development is geared towards reaching it.