Ubuntu Linux for tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices is coming. And its arrival may be sooner rather than later, as Canonical engineers appear intent on redoubling their efforts to make Ubuntu Touch work on a wider profile of hardware. Here's a look at the present state of things, and where they're headed.
Right now, Ubuntu Touch, the version of Ubuntu designed for tablets and other mobile hardware, officially runs only on four devices: Samsung's Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. Community-supported builds for several dozen other tablets and phones are also available, but the installation process is complicated and performance may be hit-or-miss.
In a sign that Canonical hopes to improve the current situation, Daniel Holbach on July 29 described efforts to get "Ubuntu Touch out to more users." A key part of that endeavor is updating the tool for installing Ubuntu Touch, called phablet-flash, so that it supports more devices. Holbach emphasized that on its own, broader phablet-flash compatibility won't mean Canonical will begin building "official" Ubuntu Touch images for more devices. Still, the change will make it easier for non-geeks—or slightly less geeky geeks, at least—to install Ubuntu on their phones and tablets.
Perhaps a bigger challenge standing in the way of bringing Ubuntu Touch to the masses is legal issues. Since running Ubuntu on many devices requires firmware and "binary blobs" that Canonical may not have the rights to redistribute, Ubuntu developers and the community will have to sort out licensing issues before Canonical can think about offering Ubuntu Touch for more devices in any kind of "official" capacity. Of course, for individual Ubuntu enthusiasts who are not worried about legal hubbub, this may not be much of a concern.
To help with further development of Ubuntu Touch images, Holbach writes, Canonical will be hosting a "porting clinic" on the Ubuntu Touch IRC channel on Aug. 1. That's a sign that the Ubuntu developers remain committed to engaging the community at large in the Ubuntu Touch effort.
At the moment, the day when Ubuntu Touch will run seamlessly on a wide array of tablets and phones remains beyond the horizon. But the point is approaching where ordinary people with only basic technical skills likely will be able to install it on the device of their choice without too much trouble. That's a little like the revolution that took place in desktop Linux in the later 1990s, when the operating system was not yet ready for your grandmother to use, but was at least sufficiently installable and usable out on a wide range of hardware for those who sought it—in contrast to the earlier 1990s, when Linux was only for the most hardcore geeks. When the same becomes true of Ubuntu Touch, Canonical will have reached a major milestone, and it may not be far off.