With Android and iOS accounting for the vast majority of smartphones, there's still room for a third platform. BlackBerry and Windows Phone are fighting for that position, but a wild-card entry -- the open source Ubuntu platform -- is scheduled for release Thursday, Feb. 21, in the form of source code and images for the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 smartphones.
The first Ubuntu phone is expected to be released in October. This Touch Developer Preview from the London-based Canonical is intended as a way to familiarize developers and enthusiasts with the platform, in order to encourage interest and app development. In addition, Canonical has said that "developers who have experience bringing up phone environments will find it relatively easy to port Ubuntu to current handsets."
Aside from being open source, which BlackBerry and Windows Phone are not, Ubuntu is intended to accomplish what has so far remained an unrealized Holy Grail -- the same basic operating system for the range of personal computing devices, including smartphone, laptop or desktop computer, tablet, and even TV.
Canonical has said that mobile Ubuntu will permit "true convergence between devices," with the same code delivering a format-specific experience for the device on which it is installed without a need for cross-compiling. When an Ubuntu-equipped smartphone is docked with a monitor, keyboard and mouse, the smartphone acts as an Ubuntu-based PC and a thin client.
Canonical has already published App Design Guides for a range of platforms and a Preview SDK, with a variety of documented templates so that native apps can be relatively quickly created. Additionally, Ubuntu is designed to treat native and HTML5 applications equally, with equal access to device functions.
In addition to the attempt at a unified platform with different interfaces for different devices, Canonical is also attempting to streamline the smartphone interface, the software development process and other aspects of the smartphone ecosystem.
For instance, the four edges of the Ubuntu for smartphones' interface hide specific functions, such as favorite apps, under the left edge and a search function under the top. The functions, and all controls for apps, are only displayed when needed, maximizing the limited smartphone screen space for the app or feature. In addition, all apps feature voice commands and have automatic backups to a personal cloud.
Canonical is following a path that was almost blazed by Motorola, whose Atrix smartphone ran an OS called Webtop and was designed to act, when docked, as the brains of a desktop computer.
But that experiment, while praised by the press for its integrated vision of component computing, never caught on, and the main mobile operating systems -- Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Microsoft Windows 8 and Windows RT, and the new BlackBerry 10 -- still maintain OS versions that are not as uniform across devices as Canonical is attempting.