PCs

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.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

34 comments
MaranathaP
MaranathaP

Just think about it Canonical, this could be the next big thing! Instead of typing you could use arm and body gestures. This innovation helped make YMCA one of the most popular wedding reception songs of all time. You could run forward or backwards in your browser, as well as jump up and squat down a page. Close an app with a hug. Double-click like the wildly successful Clapper. The possibilities are endless. Instead of sitting at a desk typing and clicking, we could get in to the best shape of our lives by doing hours of aerobic calisthenics and yoga. People will laugh at the thought of using an archaic keyboard and mouse. Primitive barbarians! Plus, I could still eat my barbecue ribs and fried chicken while generating an expense report without messing up my screen.

Slayer_
Slayer_

[b]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.[/b] I dunno about you, but I don't want to reach over my desk and smudge up my screen for 8 hours every day. This sounds like a pretty stupid idea to help innovate the desktop. Might make more sense on a mobile phone, but Ubuntu is way to late to that game, just look at how RIM is fairing, they came in too late...

codybwheeler
codybwheeler

Eh. This is going to scare a lot of people. I don't see it catching on too soon. I don't really ever see it being widely accepted. Even being the techie that I am I get a weird feeling when I am not operating my computer with a mouse.

Jaqui
Jaqui

You can be the winner of the Bonehead of the year award again this year. Until Ubuntu and the forkings FIX the critical security stupidities of using an END USER PASSWORD for admin access, on top of the idiocy of AUTOMATIC LOGIN, there is nothing about Cannonical's products that any intelligent person would touch. [ and we all know Dell has no intelligent people in their employ. ]

musicman12176
musicman12176

I'd like to see touch brought into the pc environment, so that media center pc's could take advantage. If you could use a camera to capture motions to control the pc, doing away with the remote, it would go a long way towards making a pc more acceptable in the living room to most people. As more people stream content to the home tv, I forsee more demand on the control side. As a media center pc user, control of the pc is the largest problem that I deal with, and for which there doesn't seem to be a very good solution.

roadtrip
roadtrip

If you think in terms of an OS that can be used with kiosks, the touch is a huge plus. That seems very close to using the camera for gestures...that's fuel for interactive digital signs.

gkennedy
gkennedy

We use touch screens here at work, and as a tech guy, it is great. I can walk up to a user, let them explain the problem, fix it with min. fuss, walk away. I don't get pinned to their chair. I use it at home, and on my phone, Droid, and wish more people would use it. It is easier to point to something, than grab a mouse, locate it on the screen, move it to where I want to go, and click or double click. Makes sense.

rmerchberger
rmerchberger

Remember back in the halcyon days of youth when you actually had to purchase your mouse separately? (and yes, I refused to pay $50 for a mouse when "I have a Kraft joystick that works just fine." This was on a Tandy Color Computer 3, by the way... Didja ever actually try to doubleclick with a joystick? It's not actually the same thing...) Same thing all over again - you would need to purchase a multitouch capable touchpad that would (probably) replace your mouse as your new pointing device. Now, if they came out with an affordable 12x12 inch multitouch pad like my old Kurta IS-One CAD Digitizer, I might find it interesting and possibly even useful; but IMHO today's trackpads aren't quite big enough for one finger, let alone 4... 20 years ago, I thought the mouse was an interesting but unnecessary tidbit, now they're indispensable for almost everyone. In 20 years, are mice going to be considered archaic when standard GUIs have multitouch working well? Imagine the questions from the kids then: "What do you mean you only click on one thing at a time?" "Where do you pinch this thing?" Rather like trying to explain cassette tape & floppy magnetic media to kids currently... Oh, and for the record: RIM started back in the days of the "Messaging Pager" - they were one of the pioneers of "smart devices." However, just like Atari & Amiga, methinks their marketing abilities are not up to par; and their enterprise solutions are gosh-darned expensive... I'm just sayin'. ;-) Laterz, "Merch"

iShango
iShango

You might be surprised. One of my first jobs was in school for kids with sever disabilities. Their only common factor was they were all severley visually impaired or blind. We used touch screens for those kids that had motor control issues and some form of vision which for them opened up a whole new world. I got to work with the touch screens too which was a really enlightening even if it was only on windows 95. It was surprisingly useful even on clunky old P1's and P11's The software was realy basic so my guess is that this will bring touch screens closer to the mainstream... bring it on!

Jellimonsta
Jellimonsta

Your mouse still has a track ball too, doesn't it? :p ;) ;\

feeshtank
feeshtank

I'll take the bait. I was going to spend time writing a proper rebuttal but I can't be bothered. 1) It's trivial to remove sudo access from normal users and setup a password for the root account, if you prefer that model. Having said that, I think Ubuntu has a good default security setup for a home user. The average user would never get any updates installed if they'd have to remember a second password for administrative tasks. 2) Automatic login is only useful in marginal cases (wouldn't use it myself) and also available on other desktop OSs. Maybe you could apply for a job at Canonical and set them right since they are so obviously stupid and you have a better solution.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Particularly other distros in the Debian family. Mint comes to mind... :D

Rndmacts
Rndmacts

HP has had touch enabled computers for two years now, Windows 7 is touch aware out of the box and their are several models of monitors and laptops out there that have touch screens. The one big complaint with the technology that I have read is not the gestures but that the screen gets covered in finger prints/oil so always looks dirty. Shuttleworths gestures also remind me of the same gestures a PDA used more than 10 years ago. Mr Shuttleworth, the definition of innovative is something new, not a retread of something everyone else has already done and moved on from. You want to get innovative why not make a universal driver for Ubuntu for video, printers and sound cards so that your OS is truly plug and play.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

In 10 years it won't make sense for most people to have a smartphone a tablet and a PC with a separate data connection for each. So the tablet and dock will foot the bill for most people. If Ubuntu can instead focus on the tablet market, that will be their Trojan Horse into the PC market.

6ers
6ers

Maybe Ubuntu's aim isn't solely the desktop multi-touch screen interface, but also a means of enhancing trackpad operability. Wacom's Bamboo (Graphics tablet) is already a pen or multi-touch gesture based interface, which may become even more versatile with Ubuntu's work. I'm a trackball user, but I can see a Wacom Ubuntu marriage as a great mouse alternative, or an Apple Magic Trackpad for the PC user.

JonGauntt
JonGauntt

I think it would be fun to play around with an XT2 with multitouch Ubuntu, but the price point is going to be very prohibitive. Granted, it has a lot more power, but the software alone is not going to drive $1,500+ laptop/tablets. I know the article is about PCs, but the listed hardware is still a PC tablet, so I'm not sure how this relates completely. Is there a hardware manufacturer making touch integrated equipment for the desktop that Ubuntu works with? Personally, I'm still not sure I want touch at the desktop. I have enough shoulder strain from leaning forward at my desk as it is, I can't imagine having to reach out and touch a screen at eye level to make it do everything I currently do.

mcswan454
mcswan454

Actually, I'm going to need a touch-enabled device to decide. The concept is excellent, and could potentially be a much needed "desktop" innovation. However, as I don't necessarily have a device at the current time that can take advantage, I'm not sure. I dual-boot Vista SP2/Ubuntu 10.04.24 (or something like that when the system starts, I don't pay too much attention, it works.), so 10.10 would be a step up for my current system. To get the true benefit, I'll have to invest in a device that can take advantage. I like the ideas, and am sure Canonical has put its best efforts into this (and are still). Now, I just need to find the hardware I want to run it on. Perhaps in October (the scheduled release) I can come back and offer a more considered opinion. M.

Slayer_
Slayer_

But your suggesting touch screen in addition to mouse and keyboard, not replacing it like all these articles want us to believe.

john3347
john3347

Every 'mouse' I have has a thumb operated trackball on it. They date back to Logitech's original trackball, and far and away the most ergonomic trackball offering ever, the Stationary Mouse (approximately 15 years ago). I first sampled a trackball on a friend's computer, had to have one myself, and have not looked back since. I cannot picture a touch screen replacing a trackball and keyboard on my machines. However - If touch screens become commonplace - and affordable - in my lifetime, I would certainly be forced to try one. My real dream in monitors is for the 4:3 aspect ratio to come back into vogue; or even a square screen.

tcavadias
tcavadias Staff

Are you putting down my Logitech trackball (Marble FX - best darn trackball ever made) I have been using now for the last 12 yrs? ;-) -Tammy [_]3

Jaqui
Jaqui

why should anyone have to lock it down to the normal default level? [ translation: having to edit the config you remove the sudo screwup should NOT ne needed ] and if it's only marginally usefull, why is it enabled by default in Ubuntu? oh, cause they want to fuck security. everything they have done with Linux has been to the detriment of security. with no benefit to usability.

iShango
iShango

What feeshtank said. I thought I could hear a drum banging there for a moment...

Jellimonsta
Jellimonsta

Is slick (I use v9), but it is built on Ubuntu. :p

Jaqui
Jaqui

but since I don't have the source tarball for it I'll never know.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]...why not make a universal driver for Ubuntu for video, printers and sound cards so that your OS is truly plug and play. [/i] Windows doesn't do this; it not only doesn't do this, it can't. Nor can any other operating system except the MacOS. Why? Because the hardware OEMs don't design to industry interface standards. Heck, some of them don't even design to their own interface standard! The only reason the MacOS [u]can[/u] do it is because you have no choice in what hardware goes inside your Apple PC.

weaponx69
weaponx69

Google was smart enough to realize that the desktop is the dinasaur and mobile is the wave of the future. Ubuntu should hedge its future on tablets and mobile devices like Google did or maybe they should team up with Google and fork their ChromeOS when it comes out.

iShango
iShango

My guess is that using this would lend itself to workstations along the lines of stations on a Star Trek bridge. There are studies around that suggest that working, at least part time, on your feet is more stimulating and creative and a touch screen would really lend it self to this scenario. Worth a thought after spending years with a numb bum and stiffness in my back from sitting in a chair that someone has reset to suit themselves... dont get me started. Besides it would mean I could realise part of my dream of being a space cadet...=)

browndav
browndav

I actually do play with Unbuntu 10.04 and 17" TFT LCD Monitor, Model number 821A. I have used it with SUSE 11.3 too. I use it with VLC player, so I can select what music I want to play. I was trying and still working on system that I can put into a wall that can operate a home audio/video system with touch controls, and can even be used with an overhead projector to watch movies. Still has a few bugs, but more of a stress relever after a day at the office.

Jellimonsta
Jellimonsta

For those whose medical need necessitate, they are pretty handy. Pain in the rear for Tech folks who are not used to them, to navigate though. :D

feeshtank
feeshtank

It's not a screwup. https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RootSudo Please tell me a concrete scenario where a user (who is supposed to have admin rights) using sudo constitutes a problem, and how using a separate root account would prevent the problem. No? In fact sudo is better than root: each sudo command is stored in audit logs, whereas root can run amok and just "history -c". Which sounds better (multiple administrators, SOX compliance etc.)? You're condemning an entire distro based on misconceptions. I was trying to say it's a good distro and you can make it behave in your preferred way, even if your preferences are misguided. Is autologin the default setting? Is it even advised by Ubuntu? Please read: https://help.ubuntu.com/10.04/keeping-safe/C/passwords.html "No benefit to usability" Ah, so that's why it's the most popular Linux distro. http://distrowatch.com/stats.php?section=popularity

gkennedy
gkennedy

We use a large touch screen, 46" soon to go to a 83" screen in planning for emergency's at our Fusion Center. It is more Stimulating and we get more participation from users. We currently use Win7pro with a Linux Server, but if Ubuntu is cheaper, and of course better, we would use it. Dell XT is expensive and not very fast, with Win7, so we might try Ubuntu 10.10 soon.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]Besides it would mean I could realise part of my dream of being a space cadet.[/i] I know dozens who have achieved this state without the use of computers or any other technology. ;) :p