Ubuntu recently announced a version of their operating system optimized for tablets. The user interface of Ubuntu for tablets is heavily influenced by their Ubuntu for phones user interface and makes extensive use of swipe gestures – you can read more about the design philosophy of their touch interface in this interview at Co.Design. Their introductory video (embedded above) gives a pretty good overview of how it all works, but the most interesting part (to me) comes around five minutes into the video: You can plug your phone or tablet into a display or TV and get the full Ubuntu desktop or Ubuntu TV experience.
I find this approach intriguing because it carries the promise of a single device in your pocket that flexibly adapts to specific needs, while at the same time reducing the need for redundant capabilities (in processing power, storage, connectivity) and thus hopefully decreasing cost. No need to buy a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone and a media box for your living room, just one smartphone that adapts to the peripherals you connect. No need to lug your bulky, heavy laptop into work and back home everyday, just hook up your ever-present smartphone to your work environment.
It got me thinking about how the current big players in the platform wars approach their multi-platform strategy on a technological level, so i whipped up this table:
Of course if you move deep enough down the stack you’ll find more common underpinnings: Both iOS and OS X share a XNU kernel. Both Android and Chrome OS are based on Linux. Windows Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8 are all based on a Windows NT kernel. Google TV is based on Android and Apple TV is based on iOS. Nevertheless, out of all four vendors included in the chart above, Ubuntu appears to take the most unified approach.
On the user experience side, however, Ubuntu takes a more nuanced approach: instead of attempting the daunting task of creating one unified user interface to work across desktop, mobile and big screen, the user interface adapts to the specific strengths and limitations of each domain – in stark contrast to what Microsoft is trying with its “no compromise” (ahem), one-size-fits-all, schizophrenic hybrid Windows 8 approach.
So let’s take another look at the different user experience approaches taken by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Ubuntu:
Everyone except Microsoft is approaching the tablet market from a phone UI perspective: Android, iOS and Ubuntu UIs for tablets are (more or less) modified and optimized to make use of the larger tablet screens, but they share the same fundamental interaction and UI concepts with their phone siblings. With Google it’s slowly shaping up to be a slightly more muddled affair, with rumors floating around of Chrome OS allegedly making strides into the tablet market, but for now these ambitions haven’t materialized (aside from some timid touchscreen support in Chrome OS on their new Pixel Chromebook).
Microsoft is the only company breaking out of this pattern, approaching tablets from the other direction: They’ve tried to shoehorn the same user experience onto both tablets and desktops, resulting in a somewhat confusing hybrid environment received with rather mixed critical response. Admittedly the Metro parts of the Windows 8 user interface are influenced by and based on their Windows Phone UI, but the user interface on Microsoft tablets is essentially the same as their desktop UI, with x86-based Windows tablets running exactly the same operating system as desktop machines.
At this point I’m inclined to believe that Apple, Google and Ubuntu got this mostly right were Microsoft did not. The hybrid UI approach, one half optimized for touch interaction, the other half a concession to legacy application support, is confusing for users. Furthermore, the desktop part of Windows 8 just makes it plain obvious that you can’t simply slap a touchscreen on a pointer-based UI and call it a day – classic desktop mode in Windows 8 when operated by touch is barely usable and an exercise in frustration.