Apple is keeping iOS, the operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad, to themselves. That leaves other tablet makers out in the cold, unless they buy a company that makes a competing OS (like HP did) or use an existing open-source operating system … like Android, or Ubuntu.
Google says that their Android operating system isn’t designed for tablets yet, although this hasn’t stopped Samsung from selling over a million of their Android-powered “Galaxy Tab” tablets. But what about Ubuntu, the most popular open-source operating system for desktop PCs? Is an “Ubuntu Tablet Edition” in the cards for when Ubuntu Natty Narwhal ships next April? Here’s why I think that they’re heading in that direction.

ARM Processor support in Ubuntu

The reason most desktop PCs have those “Intel Inside” stickers on them is because they use Intel microprocessors in them. (Modern Macs use Intel processors too, but Apple doesn’t like having stickers on their computers.) Intel’s good at making powerful processors like the Core 2 Duo, but so far they’ve failed to make a good tiny processor, of the kind that would power a smartphone or tablet.

Right now, most tablets are powered by ARM processors. So the fact that the people behind Ubuntu are working to make Ubuntu run on ARM processors means that they know which way things are headed. When Mark Shuttleworth says that “increased choice of hardware” is one reason they’re doing this, you know he doesn’t just mean ARM netbooks; he means “better gadgets,” like Ubuntu tablets.

Touch-friendly Unity interface

I reviewed Ubuntu’s Unity interface when it came out for Maverick Meerkat. It’s not just a new skin or design, the way Windows Vista’s “Aero” interface was; it’s a new way of using your computer, that’s not quite like anything else out there. And it can’t be a coincidence that it has large, touch-friendly buttons all along one side of the screen.

Right now Unity has a long way to go. It has poor performance and accessibility support, and most Ubuntu apps aren’t designed for a touchscreen to begin with. But Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, is putting a lot of energy into making Unity work in time for Ubuntu Natty Narwhal. So even if Natty’s not going to be Ubuntu Tablet Edition, they’re definitely working on it.

The Upshot

Could Ubuntu really power a tablet like the iPad? As opposed to one like the clumsy, Windows-based tablets, that used a stylus and never caught on. On the surface, it seems doubtful, because Ubuntu wasn’t designed from the ground up to be a tablet OS the way iOS was. It was originally meant to be a desktop PC OS, like Windows.

Ubuntu’s more customizable than Windows, though. And Unity shows that the way you interact with Ubuntu can be changed around completely, and made much more tablet-friendly. Will anyone bite, and make an Ubuntu tablet instead of an Android one? As it turns out, someone already has … and while they’re a “no-name” Chinese company, it still hints at what’s possible.

Click here to take a look! And whatever OS your future tablet will run, I hope you’ll have fun with it.

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