Ubuntu moves beyond the desktop with new TV interface, menu-killing navigation system

ubuntu tabletLate last year, Ubuntu announced it would bring the open source operating system to mobile devices. Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth said Ubuntu will soon be found on “tablets, phones, TVs and smart screens from the car to the office kitchen, and it will connect those devices cleanly and seamlessly to the desktop, the server and the cloud.”

Much debate has followed Ubunto’s mobile strategy, the general consensus being that its loyal followers and fans of Linux everywhere are the least interested in testing this technology. Still, doubt over how well it would compete against that other open source, Linux-based option (a little something called Android) remains.

Since the announcement, Ubuntu has been relatively quiet about its mobile and smart device progress, until very recently.

Ubuntu TV: Coming soon… maybe

At CES earlier this month, Canonical introduced the Ubuntu smart TV interface. “Ubuntu TV is a vision of how TV will work in the future. With no cables, no boxes and no hassles, the goal is to uncomplicated television for the average viewer while delivering to him or her all the services and options that they are becoming used to,” the company said. The system allows you not only to watch broadcast or streaming content, but also to access your own media files as well, via the cloud. It’s built into your TV, not available from a box-top or separate device. Also, there is no browser option, something Ubuntu doesn’t believe belongs in the television.

ubuntu tvBut like every other company trying to break into the connected TV segment, there are some very big barriers. And like its competitors, Ubuntu is going to have a hard time breaking them down. Content rights holders have become notoriously difficult to strike deals with, and manufacturing partners can be tricky to nail down.

Working in its favor is the fact that Ubuntu wants nothing more than to be the operating system for your TV. It has no plans to get into content production (like Google has done with YouTube), or develop its own app or other content distribution platform (which comes tied to Apple products). Ubuntu’s service steps on fewer toes than some of its major competitors do.

“From a cost perspective as well as a ‘make the life of the manufacturer’ easy perspective, Ubuntu will be a solid contender,” Ubuntu expert and author of Ubuntu Unleashed 2012 Edition: Covering 11.10 and 12.04 (7th edition) Matthew Helmke tells us. “Companies like Vizio, that make smart TVs with pretty cool software and interfaces, could be able to offload some of their development expenses and in-house programming burden.”

Still, Ubuntu TV, for the moment, largely remains conceptual. There isn’t so much of a hint as to a shipping date, and if there are any manufacturing partners, both parties are keeping quiet about it. But in true Ubuntu form, there are instructions on how you can make your own Ubuntu-supported smart TV.

New interface design

While the announcement of Ubuntu TV definitely has a certain flash appeal to it, a new display interface deserves just as much attention. Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth recently blogged about the change, called the Head-up Display (or HUD) that does away with the menu and tries to better reflect how the human brain works.

“We noticed that [new as well as established] users spent a lot of time, relatively speaking, navigating the menus of their applications, either to learn about the capabilities of the app, or to take a specific action,” he says. “We were also conscious of the broader theme in Unity design of leading from user intent. And that set us on a course which lead to today’s first public milestone on what we expect will be a long, fruitful and exciting journey.”

In order to execute commands, the HUD interface eliminates the need to scroll through menus, instead giving users immediate control over the applications they are using. Watch the video demo below to get a look at HUD in action.

Now HUD is definitely meant for the desktop in many respects — Shuttleworth specifically mentions that, saying, “The desktop remains central to our everyday work and play, despite all the excitement around tablets, TVs and phones.” However, there’s great potential for how this fast and accessible system could translate to Ubuntu for mobile devices. Helmke agrees: “I think HUD will be wonderful on mobile. It is faster than using menus, which are terrible for mobile devices anyway.”

And the innovation that Ubuntu has planned for mobile will interact seamlessly with this new approach. “Once the promised voice interface is completely, HUD will be hard to beat.”

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