Ubuntu Linux to go multi-touch

This morning I spoke with Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, who told me that Canonical will be bringing true multi-touch to Ubuntu Linux in Ubuntu 10.10 (code name Maverick Meerkat).

"Multi-touch is just as useful on a desktop as it is on a phone or tablet, so I'm delighted that the first cut of Canonical's UTouch framework has landed in Maverick and will be there for its release on 10.10.10. This is being driven in part because many partners want touch across their equipment range," Shuttleworth said.

This doesn't mean that Ubuntu is heading toward making a Linux for tablets ala Android or MeeGo. "We don't have a tablet edition, but you could certainly use Ubuntu for tablet with this. Our focus is on the desktop and netbook," he added.

In particular, Ubuntu's programmers are developing for four-finger touch devices. "While you can use one or a two-finger touch device, after our developer sprint last week, the absolute consensus was that 4-finger is the way to go. With 4-finger capable pads, such as Apple's Magic Trackpad, you can use the full vocabulary of touch gestures," Shuttleworth said.

Device drivers will be a problem, but Shuttleworth doesn't think that overcoming this will prove any real trouble. "There will be good Linux devices for Trackpad," Shuttleworth said. "Ubuntu has already tested a bunch of laptops with touch-screens for developing Ubuntu UTouch." Canonical has also decided that the Dell Latitude XT2 is going to be its development platform. Shuttleworth said that this was because "the XT2 was the best of the bunch. Its touchpad has the strongest, clearest signal after its recent firmware update." He added that the "3M touchpad family is also fantastic."

Today, only a few high-end laptops come with multi-touch screens. But, Shuttleworth said: "I think all of the major notebooks companies will put in multi-touch. It will become standard equipment as price and quality improve just as 3G technology has become common.

"By release, we expect you'll be able to use Ubuntu with multi-touch with a range of devices from major manufacturers," said Shuttleworth. "The decision to use the Dell laptop for development was engineering driven, not a business one." Still, Shuttleworth added, "all the major PC vendors are looking into touch as a major area of interest and all will be bringing touch to market and for those considering Linux, Ubuntu 10.10 will be a fantastic base."

And what will you see from this base, as Shuttleworth explained in his blog, "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. It's not quite the difference between banging rocks together and conducting a symphony orchestra, but it feels like a good step in the right direction."

The code for all this is being "published on Launchpad under the GPLv3 and LGPLv3, and of course there are quite a lot of modules for things like X and Gtk which may be under licenses preferred by those projects. There's a PPA (Personal Package Archives) if you're interested in tracking the cutting edge, or just branch/push/merge on Launchpad if you want to make it better." For more on the deeply technical side check out the official Ubuntu developer announcement.

Shuttleworth added in his announcement that "quite a few Gtk applications will support gesture-based scrolling. We'll enhance Evince to show some of the richer interactions that developers might want to add to their apps. 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. Install Unity on your desktop for a taste of it, just apt-get install ubuntu-netbook and choose the appropriate session at login."

So, if you've been thinking that while it's all very nice for Android users to use touch on their smartphones and early model tablets, but what about desktop support? Your wait is almost over. Thanks to Ubuntu, multi-touch is on its way to the desktop.

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