Last night, London-based makers of popular Linux OS Ubuntu, Canonical, unleashed a mobile version of Ubuntu which also provides options to dock and give you a desktop experience. Even if it ultimately doesn't work, this is an important innovation because phone/desktop hybrids are quite possibly where the future of computing lies -- one device to rule them all, one device to--oh, you get the idea.
This isn't the first device to try the phone/desktop hybrid. Back in 2006, an Intel/Microsoft/Samsung love-in launched Project Origami, the first of the true Ultra-Mobile PCs -- 5-inch touchscreen Windows-running portable handsets. Though they were the first devices that promised desktop-level performance in a vaguely smartphone-shaped shell, they were worryingly terrible. Unresponsive and bulky, they tried to create a market for something that just plain didn't exist. Ok, so they can have credit for trying 'original' things with form factors -- like this -- but it's no real surprise they didn't exactly hit the mainstream.
A few years later, with UMPCs nothing but laughable memories, we're seeing more realistic attempts to make the desktop mobile. CES 2011 saw the Motorola Atrix land -- an Android-running smartphone that had a laptop dock. Plug the phone into the laptop dock, and you basically get yourself a netbook. (Interestingly, the desktop interface was based on Ubuntu, similar to Canonical's new announcement.)
The concept is superb. Rather than having to mess around with good but ultimately finnicky cross-device syncing services (Dropbox, Google Drive etc), you can take your entire computing world seamlessly from a full-fat desktop experience straight to your pocket. It's an awesome, revolutionary concept, but one that the Atrix sadly failed to deliver. Desktop-like performance was actually more steam-powered-netbook-style performance, and the software meant that you couldn't easily pick up on the desktop interface where you left off on the mobile. A good piece of hardware, then, just sadly let down by half-arsed software.
Another attempt at this kind of device is the Asus PadFone. A less ambitious project, it consists of a high-powered Android smartphone that slots into a "dumb" tablet -- basically just an external screen and battery. Although it doesn't show any innovation on the software front, the PadFone showed good promise for hardware, and is now actually in its second generation, rather than being discarded after feeble sales like so many other concepts. Significantly, though, it's shown that there is demand and interest in bringing down the number of devices you have to carry around.
So, that brings us on to the present day. Linux's offering to the mobile space is most significant because of the software it offers. A mobile OS that also offers a fully-fledged desktop, all unlocked and ready for hardware manufacturers is a huge step forward. At present, developing devices like the Atrix takes ridiculous amounts of money and effort, even for the largest of firms, requiring months and years of costly software development.
But the time is getting ever more right for one device that can do all things. The divide in processing power between smartphones, tablets and laptops is getting ever smaller, and we're approaching the point where they'll all be able to run the same software, just with different user interfaces. Windows 8, with all its buttery Metro goodness, is a clear sign of this.
Another warning sign is the desktop features that Google saw fit to build into Android 4.0. Though not widely advertised, Google built in all sorts of little hooks for a keyboard and trackpad combo that makes it a pretty slick experience. Plainly, then, even Google wants you to use your quad-core Android behemoth as a desktop replacement.
My real hope for Canonical's Linux/Android offering, then, is not that it will straight away produce awesome phone/desktop hybrids. It probably won't. But if it spurs a few mainstream manufacturers into building Atrix rivals, we could finally be seeing the holy grail of computing. Who would've guessed it would look like Linux?