Ubuntu Touch: Next Generation OS or Just Another Skin?

Ubuntu Touch: Next Generation OS or Just Another Skin?

Since the dawn of Android tablets, and really ever since the HTC HD2, developers have been looking for ways to bring Ubuntu to the mobile space. It seems like every new device gets a thread devoted to showing users how to load Ubuntu. More often than not, that implementation requires you to boot Android and then utilize chroot in order to run a Ubuntu instance, but that doesn’t change the fact you’re still running Android.

So when news of Ubuntu Touch coming to the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 reached the interwebz, a collective shout of “Yippee!” erupted from the ranks. Then earlier this week Canonical, the creators of Ubuntu, teased us with a video showing Ubuntu Touch in all its glory on a tablet.

On Thursday, Canonical released instructions for installing the Developer Preview on the Nexus devices, and the XDA thread erupted with discussion around it. Then as people began to install the Developer Preview on their devices, one thing became very clear: While a lot of the data being shown in the video looked real, it all exists in the Developer Preview as dummy data. It’s not functional, and is not intended for the user as was displayed. No, this is very clearly an alpha and not intended for the normal user or as a daily-driver. It even is clear that Android is very much part of Ubuntu Touch, even down to a stripped down version of CM10.1 as the base, and chroot is still the process used to run Ubuntu, albeit in a much nicer (and cleaner) boot process.

On Friday they released the porting instructions and another suspicion was confirmed: If your device is in the CM10.1 device tree and can run CM10.1, you too can port Ubuntu Touch to your device relatively easily. And in Friday’s hangout that the Ubuntu Development team hosted they discussed the following key points (props to XDA Senior Member KMyers for not only joining the hangout, but also typing up the results):

Question : Is Ubuntu Touch stable enough for a Daily Driver?
Answer : No, most of the core “Applications” are non-functional . There is also no support for 3G Data

Question : What Devices can Ubuntu Touch Be Ported to?
Answer : As the Ubuntu Touch Preview is simply running in a Cyanogenmod10.1 chroot, theoretically you can port Ubuntu Touch to any device that Cyanogemod 10.1 Supports. Development happened on ICS and eventually moved to JB. Keep in mind that performance may vary. Instructions to port Ubuntu Touch can be found at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Touch/Porting

Question : Since this is running in a Cyanogenmod chroot, can it run Native Android Apps?
Answer : No – The Cyanogenmod Fork has been stripped of the Dalvik VM and all other components necessary to run Android Applications. There is a likely possibility that someone will develop a “bluestacks” like emulator to allow android applications to run, but this will most likely not come from the Ubuntu team. 

Question : Is dual booting possible?
Answer : Yes, thanks to the effort of the people at XDA-Developers, Dual Booting is possible. With this said, this is not something that the Ubuntu Team has any intentions of officially supporting. While Ubuntu seems to encourage community efforts, they stress that they do not want this to become a feature that the end user will expect to see officially supported. (I bet you all wish you got the 32 GB Nexus 7 or Nexus 10 rather then the 16 GB)

Question : Is the Ubuntu Touch UI using X11 or Wayland?
Answer : None of the Above. Ubuntu Touch is using the same Display Manager that is in use by Android, Display Flinger.

Question : What Kernel is in Use?
Answer : A modified Android Kernel is in use

Question : What about CDMA support?
Answer : Fear Not Sprint and Verizon users, it is being worked on. The Ubuntu Team said that the GSM Radio is the global standard and this was simply where they focused most of their attention as all of the developers had GSM devices. 

Question : Will Ubuntu be accepting merge requests for the Cyanogen10.1 sub system?
Answer : Yes, this is encouraged.

Question : Where is the Ubuntu chroot kept in relationship to Android?
Answer : The Ubuntu filesystem and all applications are kept in /data/ubuntu . If you use adb to browse this, you will see a familiar filesystem layout that most Linux users are used to 

Question : What Works?
Answer : As this is a Developer Build, dont expect much to work. The items that have been confirmed to work are;

  • Touchscreen
  • Sound (over speakers)
  • Display
  • Internet Browser
  • WiFi (No WPS)
  • Camera (Front and Back)
  • Video Player
  • ADB
  • Screen Brightness Controls
  • Automatic Brightness
  • Speech Driven HUD (Yes, it works)
  • GSM Voice (No APN Settings)
  • The SideStage Seems to be working

Question : What Does Not Work?
Answer : As this is a developer build, dont expect things to work properly, here are a few things that are not working

  • 3G/4G Data
  • Audio Out via Headphones
  • HDMI
  • Bluetooth
  • Most Applications and Menus
  • Charging Indicator
  • Software Center (Note : You can install simple shell applications via apt-get install … once inside the chroot)
  • Most applications are placeholders
  • MMS
  • CDMA Connections
  • SIM Storage
  • Auto Rotation (Or any rotation for that matter)
  • Random Crashes when swiping
  • Notifications (All of them are placeholders)
  • Most Applications that do function are web apps like m.gmail.com.
  • NFC

The issue with the release is that the focus in the video was that these features were working and is what would be deployed. What is painfully obvious instead is that the video highlighting those features was just PR and nothing else. Virtually none of the features displayed in the video even work, even on devices like the Nexus lineup that are generally the easiest to develop for, and already fully work on CM10.1. In fact, the calendar app is just a PNG placeholder and does not even function.

This doesn’t mean that we feel that there isn’t a future for this platform, but it does mean that there are definitely opportunities to improve. Here at XDA we publicly reach out and offer our services to the Ubuntu Touch project. We have more experience in the mobile development and mobile telephony space than most outfits, and have a lot to offer in what could be a tremendous collaboration. We look forward to seeing what such a collaboration would produce.

About author


Jeremy has been an XDA member since 2007, and has been involved in technology in one way or another, dating back to pre-Internet days. He has owned, to date, over 100 mobile devices over the last 15 years and mobile technology just clicks with him. In addition to being the Developer and Community Relations Manager, he is an Industry Analyst and News Editor for the News Portal, Senior Moderator and member of the Developer Committee at XDA.