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Ubuntu, Innovation and Hardware: What the new multitouch gestures mean
Mostly ignored, a recent announcement from Ubuntu’s parent company Canonical gives us an exciting insight on where the world’s most popular desktop Linux operating system is heading. Four days ago, the company’s founder Mark Shuttleworth anounced that a full multitouch framework will be comming to Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat) that is due in less than to months.
This raises a few questions and concerns. First of all, isn’t Canonical scared of legal actions from Apple? Apple is not quite the worst software patent troll, and not always the most agressive, but its recent history shows that it takes threats seriously and will use it’s patent on “multitouch”. The patent itself is ridicoulous, of course. As Dana Bankenhorn of ZDNet points out, Ubuntu is trying to go further than Apple has gone regarding Mac’s multitouch integration.
Apple may claim a patent on its mousetrap, but can it claim to control all methods for catching mice?
Of course, that’s not how law works. However ridiculous software patents can be, they are real, and companies like HTC are sweating under their power.
The easy answer would be to point out that Canonical is not based in the US, and therefore not subject to Apple’s patents as long as they don’t sell these products over there. Ubuntu is free, so inclusion of multitouch should not be a problem.
But will Ubuntu’s multitouch framework, dubbed uTouch, actually go beyond previous implementations? The answer seems to be “yes”.
The 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.
Mark Shuttleworth admits that what they are doing isn’t a revolution in human-computer interaction, but it “feels like a good step in the right direction.” I believe he is being modest here. Apple has a way of picking the best innovations in the lot, rebranding and perfecting them, and then releasing the next great thing. It has taken what already existed, and then revolutionized the computer industry by making it theirs. They’ve done that with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, all of which were commercal sucesses. But Apple has also been very strong in the laptop business these last years, and multitouch has been a part of that.
If Ubuntu could make their uTouch framework efficient on all machines and then deliver what they are promising, there would be a revolution. unfortunately, that’s not what’s going to happen.
You’ll need 4-finger touch or better to get the most out of it, and we’re currently targeting the Dell XT2 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.[...]
Window management will be gesture-enabled in Unity, so 10.10 Netbook Edition users with touch screens or multi-touch pads will have sophisticated window management at their fingertips.
The problem here is inherent to Ubuntu’s nature. Ubuntu, as the free OS it is, has to be designed to work on the widest range of devices that it could possibly run on. These devices are the ones that most people own, as they will buy their computer (touchscreen/multitouch included or otherwise) before knowing that they could install Ubuntu.
This means that the progress the Ubuntu has done will not be available for all Ubuntu’s users, not only because Canonical can’t control what hardware their users own, but also because hardware vendors might all have different goals regarding hardware, goals that may be incompatible with Canonical’s vision.
If you already are a fan of Ubuntu, your first reaction may be to think that “choice”–one of the open-source community’s favorite words–is a good thing, and that it’s evil for any OS to be tied to one particular vendor. You’d be right of course, but that’s not the whole story. Innovations in terms of computer interaction need two things.
First, they need the will and talent of the software developers, interface designers and the OS team as a whole. These people think of new ways in which users could interact with their software stack, primarily through the graphical user interface. But the user cannot interact with the software without the use of hardware. This hardware must be adapted to the needs of both the interface and the user. That’s where hardware designers come into play.
Apple’s pioneering in terms of computer interaction these last years has come from the fact that the same company controlled both the hardware and the software. It is not an inherant superiority of the OS itself–or the fact that allmighty Steve Jobs runs the company–that makes Apple appear more innovative, it is their ability to innovate when both ends of the product need to evolve.
Microsoft understood this, and while they’re still not going to be selling their own hardware, they are already setting hardware requirements for Windows v.next. That means that Microsoft will have some say on how hardware should evolve to suit their software. Ubuntu, unfortunately, will not have this luxury.
The nature of opensource makes it free, but this freedom comes with a price. In some respects, Ubuntu is the most innovative OS out there, and Canonical’s uTouch guidelines shows us why. Canonical is willing to try new things, and the UI (user interface) team has had some great ideas, but they are limited by the scope of their company and the type of product that they are distributing.
The answer, of course, would be for canonical to sign deals with PC OEM’s for some Ubuntu-approved computers that would provide the users the “full Ubuntu experience.” That would be if Canonical’s relations with the said OEM’s was easy, but the recent news about Dell’s offerings shows that it isn’t.
If Ubuntu were the future of computing, we’d see some real innovation. Canonical seems to be a company that’s ready to shake things up a little, and innovate in ways that prove they think far beyond just the next product, but they need to have a say on the hardware that their OS is installed on if they really want to make a splash. If they don’t, they’ll always be lagging behind Apple and Microsoft.
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