Shuttleworth unveils touchy Ubuntu to help reignite PC innovation

While Apple and Microsoft are busy working on other priorities, Ubuntu is attempting to out-innovate them on the desktop with a new multi-touch interface.

While Apple has turned itself into a mobile device company and Microsoft has been occupied diversifying its business for a future on the Web, there's been very little innovation to get excited about on the desktop. However, upstart Ubuntu Linux is still swinging away on desktop innovation. On Monday, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth unveiled new multitouch capabilities to bring some of the mobile innovations to the desktop and kick it up a notch.

The most recent versions of the world's two most popular desktop operating systems, Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) and Microsoft Windows 7, were short on innovative features to improve productivity and long on incremental performance improvements and bug fixes. While there's certainly something to be said for making the desktop OS faster and more stable, there's also been a growing sense that the desktop has hit a wall, that the traditional computer OS has matured to a point that there's not much exciting stuff left to do.

Ubuntu uTouch

Canonical, the company behind the open source Ubuntu project, is one of the companies that wants to push forward with new features to expand the capabilities of today's desktop, laptop, and netbook computers. With that in mind, on Monday Shuttleworth announced uTouch 1.0, Ubuntu's "multitouch and gesture stack," which not only opens up the next version of Ubuntu (10.10) to play well with touch-enabled devices but also provides an open source framework for software and hardware developers to plug into and innovate.

In a blog post, Shuttleworth stated:

"The [Canonical] design team has lead the way, developing a 'touch language' which goes beyond the work that we've seen elsewhere. Rather than single, magic gestures, we're making it possible for basic gestures to be chained, or composed, into more sophisticated 'sentences'. The basic gestures, or primitives, are like individual verbs, and stringing them together allows for richer interactions. It's not quite the difference between banging rocks together and conducting a symphony orchestra, but it feels like a good step in the right direction."

Clearly, Shuttleworth is referring to the 'magic gestures' in Mac OS X, such as the ones in the new Magic Trackpad (below), and is making a pretty big claim that Ubuntu is going to take it a step further with more complex gestures.

Apple's Magic Trackpad offers multitouch gestures for the desktop.

Ubuntu's uTouch will be available in version 10.10 codenamed Maverick Meercat, which is currently in beta (available via daily builds) and will be publicly released in October. Shuttleworth explained,

"You'll need 4-finger touch or better [capability] to get the most out of it, and we're currently targeting the Dell XT2 [below] as a development environment so the lucky folks with that machine will get the best results today. By release, we expect you'll be able to use it with a range of devices from major manufacturers, and with addons like Apple's Magic Trackpad."

He also added, "Canonical is working with manufacturers of touch-enabled products and those of their underlying technology in order to bring innovations in user experience to a broader audience. Our aim is to bring the natural, tactile experience of the world to the desktop, window manager, and applications."

Borrowing innovation from mobile

Shuttleworth acknowledged that a lot of the innovation and resources in the technology world are currently being targeted at mobile devices, especially smartphones and tablets, but that's not what Ubuntu has in mind for uTouch.

"The world's expectations of software experience are being raised by advances in mobile computing," he stated. "We are bringing that revolution to the Linux desktop: for window management and applications. Though our work at the application level has only just started, we are certain that multi-touch and gestures will be central to the way we use Linux applications in future."

While many of the big tech vendors are focused on smartphones and tablets, the Ubuntu founder said Ubuntu is not well-positioned to play in that space but it has given Ubuntu an opening to fill the void in desktops and laptops.

Shuttleworth remarked, "I still use a desktop all day long and we want those desktops to be as sleek, simple, and as usable as possible... I believe we will continue to use the desktop [as the primary means] to interact with the Web."

Of course, all of the emphasis on multi-touch functionality would make Ubuntu a great candidate for tablets. However, despite an erroneous report in June, Shuttleworth insists that Ubuntu is not working on a tablet edition and that Canonical's focus on multi-touch is solely aimed at desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

Still, since Ubuntu is an open source project, others could adapt what Canonical is doing for tablets. In fact, Shuttleworth expects it. "People will most certainly use [uTouch] to attack the tablet problem" he said.

Ubuntu shipments up sharply in 2010

When I talked to Shuttleworth shortly after his blog on uTouch posted on Monday, we also discussed the current state of the Linux desktop and the uptake of Ubuntu. He said that pre-installed Linux shipments were up by a factor of two to three times year-over-year so far in 2010.

He confirmed that Dell remains Ubuntu's top pre-installed partner and that recent reports about Dell scaling back its pre-installed Ubuntu offerings were not accurate. That Dell may change it roster of products that offer Ubuntu in each region is natural, according to Shuttleworth, but he insisted that Dell remains on board with Ubuntu and is actually expanding its Ubuntu offerings globally. He also listed Lenovo and Acer as partners that will soon offer pre-installed Ubuntu machines as well.

Shuttleworth commented that a lot of the momentum around desktop Linux is happening outside of the U.S., which may be why we're not hearing more about it yet. He said that a lot of the Linux activity in Europe is happening with institutions, such as governments and big companies, but in other parts of the world such as South America and Asia it is more of a consumer movement.

"A lot of the Linux [activity] that happens isn't visible in North America," he said. "If you look beyond North America, you see a much more competitive environment."

Sanity check

Hewlett-Packard has already tried to bring multi-touch to the desktop with its TouchSmart line of desktops and laptops, but its multimedia approach has not been widely supported by the market. Apple's multi-touch trackpads have largely been a hit on their premium laptops, but it's not necessarily a killer feature that is driving laptop sales. And, the jury is still out on the new Magic Trackpad.

Will Canonical's multi-touch innovations be enough to make people want to use Ubuntu instead of Windows? It's probably not enough on its own. But if multi-touch is well-executed and Ubuntu continues to bring a series of productivity and usability innovations to the desktop OS while Apple and Microsoft are focused on other priorities, then Ubuntu could certainly have a shot at winning more installations, especially on machines that do little more than connect to the Web.


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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