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Ubuntu for Android hands-on: a full Linux operating system when you dock your smartphone

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Canonical is announcing its Ubuntu for Android platform today, a fusion of both Google's mobile operating system and the Linux-based Ubuntu desktop OS. While you're on the move it works like any other Android phone, but when you place the handset into a dock, it becomes a fully-fledged version of Ubuntu with Unity UI. Canonical sees devices like this as the future of personal computing, giving you access to all of your data wherever you are and changing the user interface in response to the situation you use it in.

For those of you who are reminded of Motorola's Webtop interface, you aren't far off — Canonical is using an Atrix 2 with modified software to demonstrate the concept. However, Ubuntu for Android offers far more functionality than the browser-oriented Webtop. The two halves of the phone are deeply integrated, designed to make switching between Ubuntu and Android as seamless as possible.

To this end, all of the desktop apps are set up to access their counterparts on the Android side — Thunderbird shows email from the Android Mail app, Rhythmbox shows music from the Android Music app, Chromium restores your active browser session from the handset, and so on. On top of this, you've also got access to the dialer and your SMS messages within the Ubuntu interface, as well as access to the Android launcher and full range of apps. Pick up your phone, and you'll be able to resume exactly where you left off. Canonical is thinking about more than work, too — the Ubuntu TV interface is also included, allowing the handset to form the heart of your media center.

It's still very much a prototype, and while on the whole it runs smoothly, there's more of a lag opening programs within Ubuntu than you'd expect and we saw the odd bug when switching between Android and Ubuntu. We were told that this is down to the hardware not being optimized to the new OS — production models won't experience this delay, and Canonical will work with manufacturers to ensure that the switching is as seamless as possible. The only real stumbling block for the use of the device as your main computer is the current lack of apps built for Ubuntu on ARM. While x86-based Medfield phones are forthcoming, ARM currently dominates the mobile landscape. Canonical says that it's ready to support x86-based handsets, so it'll be up to developers to recompile their apps if they want to make them available for Ubuntu on Android. Canonical is demonstrating the new OS at MWC, and says that it is in discussions with manufacturers to bring the OS to handsets.