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Canonical gets physical

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You'll want to touch Ubuntu in personal places - like in your kitchen or in your car. At least that's what Canonical hopes, as it works on architectural changes and business deals to put the Linux distro on more embedded systems.

But smartphones, the industry's current fixation, are out of the picture.

Canonical is looking at Ubuntu for in-car systems, tablets, set-top-boxes, and what director of business development Chris Kenyon called "the digital home or something you carry around".

"We're not thinking about the phone base," Keynon said when he spoke to The Register recently.

The focus of all this is Ubuntu Core - Ubuntu Linux minus the familiar interface, but with kernel, middleware and a user-interface framework that lets those building devices offer their own screens instead.

A pivotal move towards a ubiquitous Ubuntu Core was the inclusion of support for Open Multimedia Application Platform (OMAP) 3 in the standard image of Ubuntu 10.04, which debuted last month. OMAP 3 is the Texas Instruments platform used, for example, in devices from Nokia and Samsung.

Keynon told us he expects support for other architectures and variants of ARM to grow during the next 12 months. He did not provide further details, but he works closely with companies building computers and other devices running Ubuntu.

"We are expecting to see people make announcements on set to boxes for products that will launch next year," Kenyon said. "Ubuntu does what you need to run on set-top-boxes, but the actual products have a longer product lifecycle in design, build and launch."

Another major move is the addition of touch support in Ubuntu 10.04. It's not yet at the API level, so you can't really do finger-based input without a lot of additional work, but it's aimed at hardware makers working with Ubuntu.

Some people have been adding touch to Ubuntu since at least Hardy Heron in 2008. Canonical wants to eliminate the deep programming work and make building with touch more accessible to application and device makers.

"In 10.10 [due in October], you will see a big push that will make Ubuntu Core a fantastic platform," Kenyon promised.

Also pushing Ubuntu down this road is the Unity interface, unveiled at the Ubuntu Developer Summit this week. The interface re-orientates the Linux distro's interface so that the dock runs down the left-hand-side of the screen while offering a launch menu for frequently-accessed applications. This can be worked using the fattest of fingers - or so Canonical will hope. Okay, menu down the side is not news for the Mac or PC, but it comes as Ubuntu 10.04 has closed the gap on both platforms.

Unity is also the basis for Ubuntu Light, which promises to get you online and Facebooking less than 10 seconds after start up. Ubuntu Light is stripped down to just chat, IM, browser and media player, and it uses what Canonical calls a "non traditional" file system to speed things up.

Touch screens on PCs and smartphones? That's one thing. But embedded systems are arguably more important, considering the market covers everything from computers in cars to TVs that deliver on-demand programming to low-cost disposable gadgets for surfing the web or keeping the kids quiet.

And now, it looks like Ubuntu is pushing hard on a touch door opened in the smartphone and PC world by Apple with the iPhone and, um, Microsoft with Windows 7. And though smartphones aren't on the cards for Canonical, the company does believe you'll be talking to Ubuntu in the future as well as touching it.

"I think people are seeing just how compelling touch interfaces can be. We have to believe that mobile computing will not be tethered to places where you only have a keyboard, and both voice and touch will have a very strong part to play in that," Kenyon said.

"It throws down many, many challenges to developers, designers and UI experts to rethink the way people interact with programs. People are really starting to get their heads around that in leaps and bounds." ®

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