On Sunday, Canonical will release Ubuntu 10.10 in netbook, desktop and server editions. The netbook version will include support for touch through a new user interface, Unity.
The Unity interface was designed from scratch for netbooks and has been available to developers and netbook OEMs since May. It eliminates lessor-used icons, rearranges the remaining ones and includes a new panel and application launcher that makes it easier to find preferred netbook apps like the browser.
When it comes to touch, Unity can be used in combination with Canonical's "libutouch" gesture libraries, which lets users perform complex tasks with strings of specific gestures. As Canonical VP Steve George explained it to me, I imagined a marriage between an iPad and an old fashioned Palm device. Remember how the Palm translated certain stylus gestures into letters or commands? The gesture libraries let developers get as complex as that, without the stylus.
"If you have a touch supported device, and can launch applications using touch mode, you can maximize applications using three fingers, or developers can use a set of gesture libraries to bring in sophisticated use of gesture. A set of touches that will bring up a screen which is your home screen, or gestures that access common documents," he described.
Ubuntu's new Unity interface supports touch
As for when Ubuntu touch netbooks will be on the market? George said he'd have specific announcements about that "later this year." We all know that if device makers don't hit the holiday season, they are only hurting themselves. Hence, I predict that we'll have at least some prototypes to gaze at before then.
I'm hoping that those announcements will include a new device based on the new Ubuntu Light edition, too. This too was made available to device OEMs in May. It is intended to build netbooks and PCs that dual-boot between Windows and Ubuntu. Ubuntu Light is all about speed. Canonical promises that it will load, launch a browser and connect to the Web in under 10 seconds. It includes less features than the full-blown Ubuntu, too: chat, IM, browser and a media player.
Canonical has been taking heat for months over how little it contributes back to the open source software projects it most relies on, including the Linux kernel and the desktop interface, GNOME. At the annual GNOME conference in July, GNOME's Dave Neary released research on who contributed most. Canonical, perhaps the most popular Linux desktop distribution for consumers, contributed a scanty 1.03 percent.
So I asked George about the uproar. He told me that Canonical doesn't view its main job as writing the foundational software, but in taking what's written and making it more usable for the Average Joe and Average Josephine.
"We focus on polishing up and improving," he said. "It might be small things but they prevent people from coming on board [to the] Linux desktop. We work on usability and applications and content all trying to make it so it can be used by a general set of users. That’s not to say we don’t contribute to open source on a more general basis, not as much on the kernel but we are oriented on other pieces on the stack."
With that in mind, I'd say any soon-to-be-announced Ubuntu touch netbooks could very well be things of beauty to behold and touch.