Canonical pursues Android users with Ubuntu Touch

Ubuntu Edge smartphone didn't pan out, but Canonical could still create a user base out of millions of Android ROM fans

Fans of custom Android tablet and phone ROMs may be wondering what's next for them after Cyanogen is planning to go pro. Here's something new for them to try out: Ubuntu Touch.

Canonical, maker of the user-friendly Ubuntu distribution of Linux, has been releasing developer previews of its new smartphone and tablet OS since earlier this year. A glimpse at the August 2013 beta showed "the outlines of a possible winner," according to InfoWorld's own Galen Gruman. Its flat visual design is reminiscent of both of the most recent Ubuntu desktop editions, as well as iOS 7, Windows Phone 8, and Android.

What makes Ubuntu Touch appealing to the custom-ROM crowd is the wealth of devices that will run on it. As with CyanogenMod, the user has to flash the device with a ROM specific to the device, but Canonical has partly automated the process via a "phablet-flash" utility for some devices (mainly the Samsung Nexus family).

Earlier developer versions of Ubuntu Touch used an elaborate chroot trick to run Ubuntu Touch within Android itself. The current Ubuntu Touch build now works the other way around: Ubuntu Touch boots as the default, and Android can be run within Touch via a container. Thus, ROM users who are loath to give up their existing Android experience can have the best of both worlds with a little work.

Unlike Android ROM users, though, Ubuntu Touch early adopters may find it hard to make Touch useful in a day-to-day way, no thanks to one major missing ingredient: an application culture.

CyanogenMod and other ROMs make use of the existing culture of Android apps. Touch's app ecosystem, on the other hand, is apparently being built entirely from scratch. To aid that end, Canonical's aiming to build its own core collection of applications to preload with each instance of Touch, and the company has invited others to join the development process. A few such core apps do exist, but anyone expecting more than the basics -- clock, weather, calculator, Web browser (and a very minimal Web browser at that) -- is going to be disappointed right now.

Touch also may spell another strategy for Canonical in light of its failed Ubuntu Edge Indiegogo smartphone project, which would have run Ubuntu Touch. Despite harvesting an impressive $12 million, the project still fell far short of its funding goal, an ambitious $23 million.

Perhaps, then, the opposite will work: Make the software so ubiquitous -- and relatively easy to get running on one's phone or tablet -- that Canonical won't have to supply the hardware. If it can make the install/uninstall process no more complicated than installing an app, it may well have a fresh beta test pool -- or even an at-launch user base -- numbering in the millions.

This story, "Canonical pursues Android users with Ubuntu Touch ," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.