Canonical has unveiled software that will give Android smartphones the ability to run full desktop computer sessions on computer monitors and television sets.
"The processors at the heart of smartphones are approaching the power of low-end laptop processors, so we use the horsepower to power a desktop experience," said Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth. "If you link your phone to a computer monitor and keyboard, then the phone can drive a full desktop session."
The company launched the software, called Ubuntu for Android, at the Mobile World Congress, being held this week in Barcelona.
The software works as an add-on to the Android mobile operating system, which is also based on Linux. When connected to a computer screen, keyboard and mouse, the software will launch a full desktop environment based on the Ubuntu Unity shell.
Canonical is marketing the software to carriers and handset manufacturers, who can then market their devices as alternatives to purchasing desktop PCs. Users would not have to install any software, but rather just connect their phones to a monitor and keyboard when they need a full desktop interface. "The handset manufacturers have had this longstanding view that the desktop of the future is the phone, but they struggled to get the balance right," Shuttleworth said.
With this technology, organizations could, instead of issuing a computer to a new employee, simply issue a phone, which then can be used wherever the employee works, Shuttleworth argued. Like with thin clients, this approach could cut the costs of obtaining a PC or laptop for each employee, but unlike with thin clients, it would not be dependent on network connectivity.
With the software, all the data on the smartphone, such as contacts and messages, can be accessed on the desktop. The phone can also carry all the applications needed for the desktop environment, and offer easy connectivity for cloud-based applications as well. Connectivity can come through the phone itself or from nearby Wi-Fi access. Video taken with the phone can be displayed directly on the monitor. Even phone calls could be made directly over the desktop using Skype or similar telephony technology.
The software will work on any version of Android, though it will require a dual-core ARM processor running at 1Ghz or higher. The phone would need an HDMI output, which would provide the video outlet to the computer monitor, as well as USB for the mouse and keyboard. Many ARM chips come with built-in video support, Shuttleworth said.
Earlier attempts at equipping smartphones to run computer monitors, such as software developed by Citrix, relied on virtualization, which could slow performance time. In contrast, Ubuntu for Android offers native access to the kernel itself. "We are depending on the fact that Android and Ubuntu are both Linux," Shuttleworth said. When the phone is docked, the kernel starts a number of additional processes that provide the desktop functionality. Canonical did a lot of work to bridge the Ubuntu processes and Android processes, allowing data to be copied easily between the two. "The two sets of processes are talking with each other through this bridge," he said.
Canonical did not mention any handset manufacturers or carriers who are testing the technology, but the company plans to have the software embedded in some Android phones by the end of 2012. The code is available for end users, though it will require a fair amount of expertise to install it. So the company is focusing its efforts on enticing handset manufacturers and carriers to pre-install the software on their high-end phones.
Shuttleworth admitted that the company still needs to finish some vital elements of the software. Security, for instance, "hasn't been a particular focus for us yet," he said. But because programs have already been written for Linux that offer security features such as full disk encryption and process monitoring, the work to bring full security to this setup should not be a huge challenge, he argued.