An Ubuntu team has created a PPA and a page dedicated to Google Nexus 7 tablet which enables users to easily install Ubuntu (and also go back to Android) on this tablet. Thanks to Benjamin Karensa, an Ubuntu and Mozilla evangelist, for writing a great post which encouraged me to try it on my much loved Nexus 7.
I had one testing laptop running Ubuntu so I downloaded the Nexus installer and successfully installed Ubuntu on the tablet. Then I went ahead and installed Kubuntu on top of Ubuntu so that I can test how Kubuntu fairs on this tablet, my findings were surprising (to me).
First Experience With Ubuntu On Nexus 7
First of all it was exciting to see Ubuntu running on Nexus 7. It was a usable experience. There is no point commenting on things which are not working at the moment as this is more or less a labs project where the team is trying to "slim down the core of Ubuntu precisely to reduce our resource consumption," as Alex Chiang said on Jono Bacon's blog.
Unity Not Ready
The reason I wanted to try it out was to see if Unity is ready for tablets, after all those years of development . What I found interesting was that Unity is anything but a UI for tablets or touch-based devices. only things that you can use at the moment is launcher and the dash. Beyond that everything else in Unity is extremely hard (if not impossible) to be used without a mouse.
Make no mistake I am not faulting Canonical or Ubuntu team here. It was my curiosity to see if Unity is ready because both Gnome 3 Shell and KDE Plasma Active are optimized for tablets and can be used with greater ease.
Jono Bacon has already stated clearly that "A core goal for Ubuntu 13.04 is to get Ubuntu running on a Nexus 7 tablet. To be clear, this is not going to be a tablet Unity interface running on the 8/16GB Nexus 7, but instead will focus on getting the current Ubuntu Desktop running on the Nexus so that we can ensure pieces such as the kernel, power management and other related areas are working effectively on a tablet device."
So, don't think of it as a criticism of this effort. It's not, I am just sharing my findings about Unity.
Major UI Changes Will Be Needed
There is no doubt that if Canonical wants to take tablets and phones seriously (when? The market is getting saturated) they will have to do a lot of work on the Unity interface. Each and every aspect of Unity will have to go through an overhaul. Top panel is too tiny to be used at all, Global Menu is more painful to use on a tablet than it already is on the desktop. I trust the Unity for tablets will be taking care of all these issues.
Is Using Nexus 7 Fine?
This project is all about Nexus 7 and not Ubuntu on Tablets. At the moment I don't see any goal beyond that. The reason Canonical seems to have chosen this tablet could be – the UDS is coming and they want something new to get people excited about, as we saw with Ubuntu TV and Ubuntu for Android. At the same time this tablet is extremely cheap and popular so a majority of developers may already own one or will be willing to throw some cash and buy it. I don't think Canonical is looking at using Nexus 7 as their tablet.
Will developers be getting a free Nexus 7 at UDS ;-)
What Will I use On my Nexus 7, Ubuntu or Android
Since I have used Ubuntu on Nexus 7 will I stick to it or will go back to Android? As an Ubuntu user you may be excited about running Ubuntu on tablet, I was too but that excitement fades as soon as you hit the real world. In addition to an interface which currently can't be used on tablets with fingers, all the apps and services that I am used to on this tablet are missing.
You are back to the lonely, deserted world of the desktop Linux.
Android today has more than 600,000 consumer apps which include high-end games and services. Then there are some areas where Android apps perform better than desktop Linux apps. The reason is simple: a lot of commercial apps and services are available for Android but not for Ubuntu.
There are no 'Ubuntu tablet' apps, you have the regular desktop apps which are not optimized for tablets or touch screen.
Let's get one thing straight tablets are consumption devices unlike the desktop. People needs apps and services to use on these tablets and Ubuntu is far behind Android (and even Chrome OS) in that aspect. Here I am not talking about enthusiast and developers who would wget anything they want, I am talking about me as a consumer and there was not much to do on this tablet running Ubuntu.
Unity was slow and not very responsive on this tablet. So when I had to decide whether to stay with Ubuntu or to go back to Android, the decision was obvious.
KDE on Nexus 7?
I also installed Kubuntu on this tablet and I was actually surprised to find that KDE was more responsive, fast usable compared to Ubuntu Unity. Since you can customize the size of panel, fonts and application buttons and borders you can use KDE on this tablet just with your finger. No mouse or keyboard is needed. So, I found the desktop KDE to be more usable than Unity.
Unfortunately, I was not able to run the plasma desktop which is optimized for touch-based devices so I can't comment on how that experience would be. I am actually interested in seeing how plasma might have found it a bit more useful with plasma on it than Unity.
Canonical's Tablet Ambitions
It's great to see that Canonical has supposedly taken the tablet seriously. There is a lot of work to be done and we won't even see any UI changes till April 2013 as that's not the goal of this project.
I wonder if Canonical will be able pull this all together in time (if it's already not too late as even the emerging economies are now Android forte?). If they do succeed in creating Ubuntu for tablets and smartphones who is going to use it on their devices - Samsung, Motorola, LG, HTC, Acer or ASUS?
Does it even make any sense to work on tablets and smartphones in 2013 when Android has captured the market, RIM has almost died, Windows is failing to get any bite of the market and Mozilla already has a working smartphones OS with deals in place to bring the phone out?
I think Canonical should have started their tablets and smartphones efforts two years ago. Right now it's really hard to get into these highly competitive and almost saturated markets. Look at how hard Microsoft is struggling despite its deep pockets and how RIM is going out of business. And then you have mighty Apple sitting on a pile of US $121 billion cash and will not miss any opportunity to sue Canonical if they emerge as a competitor in tablet/phone space.
Challenges are big, but Mark Shuttleworth has done it once already. He has turned Ubuntu into the top and most popular GNU/Linux distribution. It took time but it happened. Ubuntu, fortunately, has the leadership (which has a very clear focus) it needed so something will definitely come out it it. Maybe they are putting all the pieces together which we can't see from the outside, may be there is space for a new player.
Challenges aside, it is undoubtedly an appealing project for Ubuntu developers and Ubuntu fans to see their OS running on a different class of device.