Out of all possible new incumbents entering the mobile OS space, Ubuntu, purveyors of a very fine Linux distribution, announced at CES that they have some lofty goals of their own. I watched the short introductory video on their homepage, which goes on to demonstrate and discuss some of their design and interaction goals with the OS. It definitely looks beautiful and very promising.
I tried to quash my initial feelings of giddiness by telling myself this is just a demo — after all, they have yet to ship anything on a working handset. A lot of the design decisions they’ve made, as well as the way you interact with the OS, seem quite innovative. There are some things Ubuntu mobile has that I wish iOS had, like being able to interact with your top apps on the lock screen, as well as being presented with the most frequently used apps on your home screen. I grow weary of dealing with grids of icons and having to manage them frequently. Folders on iOS always felt like a short term fix for a more complex and long term issue. I only use folders sparingly for apps I don’t access often, but I don’t like them and wish I didn’t need to use them.
Based on what was shown in the video, being able to switch between running apps by swiping from each edge of the screen looks brilliant. Of course, I don’t know how well that will work in reality without being able to use it myself. I have in the past jailbroken my iPhone and have used apps like Zephr, which offer multi-touch gestures for switching between open apps, however it never felt like it worked like a properly baked solution from Apple. Some iOS apps use non-standard, and perhaps unintuitive gestures. I see this as being a huge obstacle as if Apple were to implement the ability to switch between apps with one finger, I could see conflicts arising when pulling from the edge of the display. Those conflicts could cause inadvertent triggering of an individual apps gestures, which might screw the user up. I suppose the fact that Ubuntu is designing their own OS and dictating some design and implementation structure, that they may be able to avoid a lot of these issues. I’m optimistic, but remain slightly skeptical until I get my hands on the OS and am able to put it through its paces.
Without developers and a solid development foundation, you have no ecosystem for which your users would be part of. It’s great to see Ubuntu bake in a proper cloud service, similar to iCloud and what Google offers for Android. They seem to be pushing HTML5 apps, but they are equally proselytizing the benefits of native apps — which is excellent. It’s nice to see that they are treating these two independent things very differently. There are inherent benefits to developing web apps, i.e., interoperability between platforms, yet they are intelligent enough to not dismiss the performance and user experience benefits that native apps bring to mobile. I hope they manage to get enough supporters to ship something great. It would be amazing to see a truly innovative and new alternative to iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.