Ubuntu-Android Phone: Canonical's Big Move?

Monday Feb 27th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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With a few simple tweaks, the Ubuntu-Android phone could be a major player.

For years now, the Canonical team has been attempting to set up Ubuntu as something more than just another Linux distribution. It's definitely been a long road, filled with both ups and downs.

During this period of Ubuntu's evolution, Canonical has managed to see success on both the desktop and server front. Where we've seen little to no activity however, is with Ubuntu on the tablet. Then again, remaining absent on the tablet may have been by design.

It turns out that Ubuntu may have been putting their efforts into something bigger than any tablet with the announcement of an Ubuntu-Android phone. While it's not available for purchase yet, this Ubuntu-Android phone does present some compelling items of interest. Items that, if properly played, could be a major boost for Canonical and the Ubuntu project as a whole.

It doubles as a TV and PC

If you haven't seen the video of the Ubuntu-Android phone in action, please take a moment to check it out. This Ubuntu powered mobile device provides three interesting functions under the guise of a single device.

The first level of functionality is that of a typical Android-powered smartphone. This translates into games, apps and other tools that bring us the usual Android experience that we all know and love.

The next level of functionality comes in the form of a dock for the phone. Attached to a TV, this dock transforms your Android phone into a fully functional Ubuntu set top box. Ubuntu TV is a strong video-on-demand experience that is comparable to Amazon VOD or Netflix, but with a better UX (user experience).

The final level of functionality – and perhaps the most impressive – is taking this same dock and attaching it to a PC monitor and keyboard. Instantly, the phone becomes a full-fledged Ubuntu-powered computer.

Best of all, unlike a tablet, this portable PC fits right into your pocket.

Traveling with the Ubuntu-Android phone

I'll be first to admit that I wasn't a big fan of the idea of Ubuntu TV, as I failed to see the value of it as a standalone product. However, I can definitely see value in a mobile phone that brings both Ubuntu TV and the Ubuntu desktop to any given location.

Imagine, no more notebook toting from office to home and back again. The space saving feature of having your desktop PC act as a mobile phone is actually pretty powerful when you stop to think about it.

On the flip side of this, however, you need to consider the following issues. First, you need to use a dock. This kills off the idea of extreme portability, since you'll need to tote along the required dock to connect to TV sets and PC monitors.

The only way the dock wouldn't be a hassle, at this point, would be to have two of them. That way you're not needing to plug it into your peripherals each time you move from one location to another.

It's no laptop

As fascinating as the Ubuntu-Android phone happens to be, the fact is it's no replacement for a laptop PC. This phone hybrid may present an interesting alternative to a lower-powered desktop computer, however not offering a dock for laptop users is a mistake.

This type of dock would be an additional option that's basically a netbook in function, with docking compatibility for the Ubuntu-Android phone. Suddenly, the Ubuntu-Android phone becomes even more valuable. Because now it serves as a phone, desktop PC, Ubuntu TV and a notebook.

Now, some of you might be wondering, what possible advantage would there be to adding yet another dock to the mix? After all, this Ubuntu-Android phone already has enough options with its existing dock, right?

Well, I believe that if there was a separate dock available for purchase, designed as a netbook alternative, this phone would be even better suited to demonstrate how powerful data unification can be.

Your data, everywhere – it's a start

Imagine typing SMS messages on your keyboard, or viewing phone pictures on your PC monitor. Better yet, a calendar that syncs without the potential for network errors or USB-related syncing headaches. Not to mention the shared bookmarks between your Android phone and Ubuntu based desktops.

Undoubtedly, there's certainly something to be said for data unification using this device! Having your contacts, calendar, photos and even calls right on your PC monitor does offer something pretty powerful to the end user.

Where it gets really interesting is the prospect of making and receiving phone calls while the phone is docked. Unlike a SIP or Skype setup, the Ubuntu-Android phone works with actual mobile phone calls!

But wait, here's where things could get really wild: with how you connect to the Internet.

Normally, you would be connected to the local network only, either via Ethernet or wifi. But thanks to the mobile network connection from the phone, you can dock this device and connect to your existing 3G/4G! With no dongle or any additional headaches. As long as the mobile carrier allows for this functionality, you would have Internet access just about anywhere you can think of.

But it's a phone

Now that we've looked at all the neat stuff that this portable computing device can offer, it's time to examine some cold hard facts. Even if the CPU offers enough power to get Ubuntu going the way the end user would expect, running Ubuntu on 512MB of RAM is just painful. Even if this is a trimmed down version of Ubuntu, I am very skeptical how well Unity can perform on such limited computer specifications.

Not to mention what you're risking if you were to lose this device. You would be losing more than just an android phone, you could lose access to your entire desktop!

Worse, if you have issues with your dock, how will you get your phone connected while you're waiting for a dock replacement? Now I’m not trying to discount just how amazing this phone is. This easily is one of the best ideas I've seen in a long time. I'd love to see it succeed! Unfortunately though, I am unsure how the concerns listed above could be resolved.

What's missing from the Ubuntu-Android phone

Overlooking the minor shortcomings I've listed previously with the Ubuntu-Android phone, there are actually some things that would instantly make this device a must-have for me. Actually, I'd go so far as to say that if they don't account for this, Canonical would be doing all who consider buying this phone a disservice. One area that has always mystified me is why Ubuntu One isn't used more effectively. Allow me to explain further.

Do you remember Zonbu? While the mistakes made by the company were many, including lackluster hardware, one thing Zonbu did right was enabling users to have all their app settings saved regardless of which Zonbu you used. So for example, if I lost one Zonbu device, I could login to a new one and everything I had would just sync up automatically.

My thinking with the Ubuntu-Android phone is that this same kind of settings functionality should be setup with Ubuntu One out of the box. This provides Canonical with a great excuse to charge a little bit of a subscription fee for added revenue, plus it also means if I lose the phone, the data stored isn't gone forever.

The idea of limiting this kind of functionality is beyond foolish. It's a two-fold opportunity that Canonical could use to make a name for Ubuntu-Android.

If Canonical heeds this advice, as an electable option, I firmly believe that they would see this phone become an overnight success. Even better, Canonical would find they're in a stronger bargaining position with phone vendors as well.

Imagine, phone and PC data that is always safely backed up off-site. Now that is the kind of user experience I'd like to try out, even using the limited resources of the Ubuntu-Android phone!

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