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Ubuntu's Upcoming Unity 8: Pursuing the Goal of Convergence

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Matthew Helmke, author of Ubuntu Unleashed 2016 Edition, is excited about the Ubuntu community's concept of convergence: a single interface that works everywhere, allowing users to move seamlessly between cell phone, laptop, desktop, and other devices. Targeted for release in early 2016, Ubuntu's Unity 8 will be a giant step toward this goal, but more development participants are needed.
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Have you ever wished that you didn't have to learn a new way of using every new electronic device? Turn on your laptop, and you're using one operating system; make a call on your mobile phone, and you're using another. Each type of device uses specific kinds of programs, and each has quirks and unique features that require you to relearn how to do the very same task on each different device. What if you could find a way to carry only one device that's sufficient for every task you want to perform—including work-related tasks?

The Ubuntu community has been working for years to solve this problem of convergence. The goal is to have just one operating system (specifically Ubuntu), running on every device you use. This solution would minimize the amount of learning required when you switch devices, because all devices would run the same software and use the same interface.

Even better, the ultimate goal is to produce a device that looks like a mobile phone, with all the typical phone features, but can double as a complete computing device. Writing a long post for your blog? Attach a keyboard to your phone, maybe connect an external monitor, and off you go. Want to crunch some numbers in a spreadsheet? No problem. Need to use SSH to connect to your server to do some maintenance? The power to perform this task—and many more—fits right in your pocket.

For several years, Ubuntu development has focused on this idea of convergence. We're not quite there yet, but we're very close. The Unity desktop has been rewritten in a way that makes all the underlying software identical, even when running on devices as different as desktop computers and mobile phones. Each device can run the same software. The same code is used, regardless of platform. What an opportunity!

What are the benefits of using a full-fledged operating system on a cell phone or other mobile device? First, all users would have the benefit of consistency. The software we use on our “normal” computing devices—laptop, desktop, even tablet computer—would also be the software we use on our phones. What a timesaver! Imagine not having to relearn how to perform the same tasks, plus gain the ability to perform more complex tasks, even when switching devices. Second, techno-geeks like us would have all of the power and openness we already love about Linux, and specifically Ubuntu. We would get complete control of the software on the device, including a huge range of free and open source software options, available for installation without paying a single additional dime.

Here's the real question: When? When will we actually see this happen? When will we be able to purchase such a device? The following sections outline the details and provide the answers we need.

Unity 8: A Graphic Desktop for Every Device

For several years, Ubuntu has used Unity as its main user interface. This is the graphic desktop that you see when logging into your Ubuntu computer. Unity 7 has a separate version of the software for each type of computing device, as a result of differences in the underlying operating system software and user display/graphics software running on the OS.

However, the Ubuntu community has been working on a common software infrastructure that will run on any device, allowing one version of Unity to be used across all supported devices, whether traditional or mobile. Unity 8 and the underlying Mir display server will create, for the first time in history, the ability to use the same underlying visual framework and tools for applications to run on any type of Ubuntu device. Applications developed for mobile will scale easily, running and displaying properly on desktop devices. Applications created for desktop or laptop devices will be easy to adapt and use on mobile devices, running cleanly on any display.

Work on Unity 8 is progressing rapidly. Though Unity 8 is not yet the default Ubuntu OS, we expect to make the switch with the next long-term support (LTS) release of Ubuntu in April 2016. A beta version is available now in active development and testing, and should be ready soon. With the LTS release, Ubuntu will no longer need to know whether an application was coded for use with a mobile or desktop display, because the OS will run on either.

Ubuntu's List of Device Partners Is Growing

Ubuntu is currently available for purchase on a limited number of smartphones worldwide, and this number is growing. With the continuing development of Unity 8, Ubuntu is expected to be more viable and interesting to OEM companies that supply devices to mobile carriers. Reviews have been positive, and early adopters have given Ubuntu an opportunity for real-world testing, where it has shown itself to be robust, trustworthy, and promising. We hope and expect that more Ubuntu-powered devices will soon be available directly from mobile carriers.

How You Can Help Bring Convergence to Reality

If you're eager to get started working with Ubuntu, you can participate in the development process. Ubuntu's software development kit (SDK) lets you create native apps for Ubuntu right now. You can also adapt existing web or HTML5 apps by developing a scope, which is an Ubuntu-specific way to find, organize, and view information and content from the Web or from the device. Scopes are a major feature of the Unity desktop and will work on any device.

The SDK's Ubuntu emulator will let you test your apps right in your Ubuntu desktop, so you can see how the app runs on a mobile device. Instructions are also available to help you install Ubuntu on your existing mobile device, although only a limited number of devices are currently supported.

The website for the Ubuntu SDK walks you through the process of learning how to develop convergent apps, including information about APIs, the build environment, security policies, and testing.

Final Thoughts

Convergence is an exciting idea. The Ubuntu community has demonstrated its potential with real-life proofs of concept. It's already possible to participate, building or modifying existing applications to run on Ubuntu. What remains to be seen is whether interest will be great enough. OEMs and mobile service providers are looking for products that they can sell to consumers, meeting the needs of those clients and making some money in the process. For Ubuntu to succeed in the mobile arena, the missing link is apps. There are two ways to fill that gap, and Ubuntu is pursuing both:

  • Finding a way to run the tens of thousands of apps currently available for Ubuntu on the desktop would instantly make the platform more interesting and desirable to consumers. This is especially important when we think about the potential to use the powerful devices currently available to run various productivity apps, eliminating the need to carry around bulky laptops while traveling. Using the same device for telephone and computing activities would streamline the lives of many people who are currently tied to both.
  • Creating new applications or new ways to run existing web/HTML5 applications on an Ubuntu mobile/desktop interface would eliminate the need to run a web browser to check a Twitter feed, connect with Facebook friends, and so on. Convincing community members to donate their work and efforts to this cause is a critical task if Ubuntu is to be successful in its goal of convergence.

The future is here. Other operating systems and organizations—such as Microsoft with its Windows OS—are working toward the same goal. I estimate that Ubuntu is about a year ahead of these groups in development of a working platform and model. The question is whether it's possible to maintain that lead. The answer is yes, but only if Ubuntu can attract and maintain community support and participation.

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