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Canonical reveals next Ubuntu's touchy side

Meerkat's gesture APIs and engine released

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Touchy tablets are hogging the headlines and giving Steve Ballmer sleepless nights, but Linux netbooks are the focus of Canonical's latest push.

Ubuntu's chief sponsor has released uTouch 1.0, a multi-touch and gesture stack for the Maverick Meekat release of the Linux distro coming in October.

The stack comprises an open-source gesture-recognition engine and a gesture API, built using C and released under the GPLv3 and LGPLv3.

uTouch is the first big push to bring multi-touch to a broad swath of Ubuntu applications and inputs from kernel to applications. By releasing the code, Canonical hopes developers can help improve the APIs and also use them to touch-enable more applications running on Ubuntu.

Canonical said uTouch has worked "particularly well" on the Dell Latitude XT2 and HP tx2 devices — machines with a screen that flips so the devices become tablets — and Lenovo's T410s.

uTouch will be integrated with the Ubuntu 10.10's Unity interface for netbooks. Integration to make uTouch work more easily with a full PC is planned for Ubuntu 11.04, with touch enablement to remain a focus of Canonical's Ubuntu up to version 12.04.

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth told The Reg that despite this year's hype around the iPad, touch has strong appeal outside of tablets in the world of netbooks. Shuttleworth expects that uTouch will work with a range of devices from major manufacturers with add-ons such as Apple's Magic Trackpad, by the time Ubuntu 10,10 is released later this year.

According to Shuttleworth, uTouch's gesture-recognition engine will recognize multi-touch input via a trackpad as well as a screen.

"I don't think this is going to be a rarity or an oddity in the traditional laptop or netbook world and on desktop," Shuttleworth said of multi-touch input. "The gesture stuff is the same — if you are doing a three-finger pan or rotate, the gesture engine can take input from a screen or touchpad."

The goal with uTouch is to link together a series of commands for input. You could, for example, use three fingers to move, resize, minimize, and maximize windows, and use four fingers for shell management — such as making an application full-screen. That'll be in addition to two-finger scrolling and resizing.

Shuttleworth added that most Gtk and Qt applications won't need recoding to work with uTouch at this level, although coding might be needed for more advanced touch gestures.

Canonical would need to work with others to tweak their applications for touch. Shuttleworth said it would be “interesting” to work with folks such as the Mozilla Foundation, which has added multi-touch support for Microsoft's Windows 7 in the latest Firefox 4 beta, as they now have a framework to put touch on Ubuntu.

Ubuntu's creator remains positive about the future of netbooks, despite this category of machine being pretty much eclipsed during 2010 by the iPad and Microsoft's scramble to catch up.

"We will ship two to three times as many Ubuntu installs on the [netbook] form factor this year as we did last year. The tablet was a fantastic wake-up call to an industry that was convinced it had seen it all. I have a tablet, and it's a nice lazy computing device, but I wouldn't use it as my only device. [The iPad] creates new opportunities," he said.

“Our focus is the netbook because there’s still quite a bit of innovating left — we’ll see whether tablets are hot in a year.” ®

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