Ubuntu and Canonical had a very strong presence at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The main attraction was our Ubuntu for Android prototype that was published just a week earlier. The beautiful cubic pavilion also housed the Ubuntu TV demo, Ubuntu One, and our established desktop and cloud offerings. The booth attracted a constant flux of curious visitors representing all walks of life: media, industry people, businessmen, technology enthusiasts, students and… competitors.
John Lea, Oren Horev and myself from the Design Team joined Canonical sales, business and technical staff in this bold effort. In addition to running demos and having interesting conversations with the visitors to the booth, we also had the opportunity to have a look at the endless exhibition halls and floors of the conference and do research on what makes the mobile world tick at the moment.
If the MWC 2012 had to be summarised in one tagline, anyone would probably admit, that it was a one massive Androidfest.
Google’s recently upgraded operating system was simply everywhere. Spearheading the Android avalanche were the latest generation supermobiles – every device manufacturer was showing off with their versions of quad-core, high-definition, 4G/LTE smartphones and tablets bumped up to the latest specification.
Bells and whistles ranged from glasses-free 3D displays to Dolby sound to watertight casings – demonstrating that OEM customisations go beyond branding and skinning the interface.
Google themselves hosted an extensive Android area that was more like a theme park than a typical business affair: fans and passers-by were treated to a smoothie bar, a tube slide (presumably an homage to Google offices), grab-a-plush-Android game – and lucky ones could have had their Nexus phones pimped up with Svarovski crystals assembled by an industrial robot.
In stark contrast to Google’s rather playful attitude towards their ecosystem, the manufacturers were more poised for flexing their technological muscle. The impending hockey-stick curve of serious mobile computing power seems to all but prove the concept behind Ubuntu for Android. The phones of the near future are going to effortlessly run desktop and mobile operating systems simultaneously, and those extra cores can do more than just keep your hands warm in your pocket. Similarly, in our hands-on testing, the demoed 4G/LTE connections were lightning fast, signalling that accessing your cloud and thin client applications from a phone running a full productivity desktop can shift the paradigms of your mobile working life.
While this year’s congress was overrun by Android, it will be interesting to see whether this will be repeated next year, when we can assume to see the effects of Google’s Motorola acquisition and the impact of Windows 8. The latter had reached Consumer Preview stage and was presented in a separate session outside the main exhibition.
Most of the manufacturers had an odd Windows Phone in their inventory, but basically its marketing was left to Nokia, who also occupied a substantial exhibition floor not far from us. The newfound underdogs were quite upbeat about their Lumia phones, 41 megapixel cameras and the staff were very approachable in their stripy Marimekko shirts and funny hats.
In one of the quieter affairs, the Nokia Research Centre demoed an indoor positioning system that promises 30 centimere accuracy and presumably lands in a Bluetooth standard in the near future, enabling a range of user experience scenarios for malls, airports and alike. Affordable Asha phones and Nokia Life for emerging markets were featured as well.
Aside from phones, there were a number of smart TV upstarts. We saw a few demos built on old versions of Android, where a phone interface jumped on the screen as soon as the user leaves the home screen. A more captivating demo came from the Korean company Neo Mtel, who showed off a UI with lots of lively widgets and affectionate animations. They also had a tablet-based “second screen” to complement the product vision.
Perhaps a little surprisingly, Opera (of the Opera browser fame) showcased a TV platform based on web technologies.
In Hall 7 we also had the pleasure of having Mozilla as our next door neighbours. They had set up a nice lounge where people could try out the latest Firebox browser for Android phone and tablet. The Boot to Gecko initiative had matured into the Open Web Device together with Telefonica, and resulted in a working demo of a phone OS, based entirely on web technologies with APIs to talk to the handset’s camera, sensors and telephony software, for example. It was also interesting to exchange thoughts on open-source design and development with the fine Mozilla employees.
Meanwhile, there were some interesting evolutions in device form factors to be discovered. Samsung exhibited a 10-inch Galaxy Note tablet with Adobe Photoshop Touch and very precise and responsive drawing stylus. With the exception of tactile feedback the experience is closing in on that of pen and paper – and for many, the benefits of digital malleability can outweigh the constraints of analogue tools.
Notepad-sized phones are parallel to this trend. The Galaxy Note phone got a rival from LG’s 5-inch Optimus Vu. Both devices channel the passport-size Moleskine or Muji notepad and flaunt oversized screens and stylus input. To prove the point, Samsung had dragged a bunch of portrait street artists to capture the likenesses of volunteering visitors on these polished pixelslates.
The requirement of pocketability and one-handed use has caused many (starting with Apple) to overlook this emerging form factor, but not everyone keeps their mobiles in their pockets and many use their phones with two hands anyway. It will be interesting to see how the notepad phones fare in the market and what kind of UI patterns will prevail there.
Last, but not least, the Padphone from ASUS is a very interesting play on device convergence and as such resonates with Ubuntu for Android. The Padphone is a smartphone that docks into a tablet shell and instantly becomes a tablet. The tablet with the phone inside can then be docked into a keyboard, turning the device into a laptop. While some clunkiness with the hardware remains, the user interface seems to transition from phone to tablet seamlessly and in a snap. However, there’s less wow in the tablet-to-laptop transition, where just a mouse pointer is added into the mix. Since Android is designed for touch this is no surprise, but there’s some added value in having a physical keyboard for typing.
Amidst all the sensory overload and throughout the four days of congress, the Ubuntu booth felt like an oasis of good vibes all the time. The interest and support from people we encountered was really encouraging and very heartwarming. Hands-on videos from the booth went viral across the internet. Many said that Ubuntu for Android was the highlight of the Mobile World Congress 2012.
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