Sunday, February 26, 2012

Canonical Announces Ubuntu for Android

Canonical’s Ubuntu TV, unveiled earlier this year, was the first in a series of announcements about “Ubuntu on devices”. The next device in Canonical’s multi-screen strategy for world domination is being unveiled next week at Mobile World Congress 2012, and it’s an Android-powered smartphone. It’s not entirely what you might think, though.

This is not an Ubuntu app running atop Android. Nor is it an all-Ubuntu device running an Android emulator. Rather, Ubuntu for Android it the full Ubuntu desktop running side-by-side with Android on a shared kernel that provides context appropriate access to all your content. When out and about, the phone operates as any other Android-powered phone; but when you slip the device into a dock connected to a monitor, keyboard and mouse you get the familiar Ubuntu desktop experience.

I admit that I think this is pretty novel. It’s not an Asus Transformer trying to play both sides of the smartphone / laptop experience with a single OS. Instead, it’s something completely new that’s trying to leverage the right interface and experience for the right context. It’s a phone in most senses, but only activates the Ubuntu desktop when connected to peripherals that benefit from them.

What’s this good for? I asked Jane Silber, Canonical’s CEO, that question. The most immediate use case is enterprise users: people who carry a smartphone and a laptop. Ubuntu for Android would allow many mobile professionals to reduce to a single device. Average users would benefit from this convergence, too. According to Silber this allows “the right experience on the right form factor.”What are the benefits of this Android/Ubuntu hybrid? Data consolidation, for one. You don’t need to duplicate your address book, or even synchronize it: whether you’re looking for a number to call from the Android phone app, or looking for an email from the Ubuntu email app, both programs are interrogating the same single address book. The same holds true for documents, media, and any other content stored on the device.

Another neat trick: if you connect your Ubuntu for Android device to a television via HDMI you don’t get the Ubuntu desktop: you get the Ubuntu TV interface. You can browse media on your phone or access online content as you would with any Ubuntu TV appliance.

Ultimately, says Silber, this hybrid approach reduces the mental “context shifts” required by using multiple independent devices. When your Ubuntu for Android device is docked and you’re composing emails, you can still send and receive texts and phone calls — and, indeed, access and launch all the Android apps on your phone — meaning that you don’t need to move away from your laptop to pick up and use your phone. You simply mouse over to the incoming call indicator and select the action you desire: take the call, hang up, whatever. Efficiency, for the win!
When I asked Silber how long it would be until they kick Android to the curb and release an all-Ubuntu phone, she simply said “We’re not going to be announcing that at MWC 2012.”

As with the Ubuntu TV, Canonical won’t be unveiling a completed product ready for purchase next week. They’re showcasing the technology they’ve developed and are looking for hardware partners.

New Update Brings Collaborative Editing To Google Docs Android App

It’s safe to say we’ve all been in a situation where a few extra pairs of eyes could come in handy, and the folks at Google know just how that feels. In an effort to give people that backup when they need it, they’ve just pushed out a useful new update to the Google Docs Android app.

The update’s biggest draw is the addition of live, multi-user editing — after sharing the document with your closest confidantes, any changes made will carry over to each person’s device in real time. To help with the mobile editing process, Google has also added the ability to pinch-zoom between page and paragraph views, not to mention some much-needed formatting tweaks. Need to bold a particularly thoughtful passage, or point out a lousy turn of phrase with some red ink? Now you can.

Of course, there’s nothing like a human slant to make even the most utilitarian updates grab you by the heartstrings. Google’s demo video tells the charming story of a guy doing some last-minute prep on a speech, and I half-expected it to highlight the other side of the collaborative editing coin: that more voices involved doesn’t always lead to a better final product. It didn’t, of course, but I could definitely imagine a few of my friends clogging up a heartfelt speech with off-color jokes if I were in the same spot.

The moral of the story? Keep your friends close, and your collaborative editors even closer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Clear: Why This Simple To Do List App Has Everyone Talking

Clear the heavily-anticipated touch-based to-do list app, is launching in the iTunes App Store tonight. And by heavily anticipated, I mean this app was getting tech blog coverage based on demos, previews and teaser videos.

Why the big draw for what’s typically been a rather ho-hum app category, the lowly to-do list? Clear is pure eye candy, for starters. But it’s also representative of a major leap forward in smartphone app design, as it’s been built from the ground up for the touch interface. The app is based solely on the use of now-common gestures: swipes, pulls and pinches. There are no buttons with Clear, and yet, it’s surprisingly simple to use. In fact, that’s the point.

If your current to-do list app needs are complex, you may not be in the market for Clear. But if you’re regularly turning to a simple to-do list app, or even the iPhone’s built in notepad to make your lists, Clear is definitely going to wow you.

The app is unique in that it forgoes common navigational elements – like buttons positioned either at the bottom of the screen or towards the top – in favor of an all-gesture interface. If you don’t know how to swipe and pinch, you could be lost for a second upon first launch (err, mom). But Clear’s design is meant to tap into what’s already common knowledge among smartphone users: you can swipe, pinch and pull down on on-screen elements to interact. Who needs buttons?

Somewhere, Steve Jobs, no fan of buttons (obviously – look at the iPhone, there’s just the one) is smiling.

With Clear, there are only a few gestures you need to in order to use the app: pull down on a list to add an item, swipe to the right to complete an item or to the left to delete it, pinch apart two items to insert a new one in between, and pinch vertically to close the current list and see all the lists in the app. Lists are also color-coded with a heat map to show the most pressing tasks at a glance..

That’s it. It’s a quick learning curve, and what’s more, doing away with buttons can actually speed up the process of using to-do lists once you realize that’s how it’s done. Clear even pushes you to simplify here, too, by limiting to-do items to just 30 characters.

“There’s so much crap trying to get your attention in other to-do apps, you don’t even bother typing things in on the iPhone app version,”  proclaims the app’s co-creator Phill Ryu, “with Clear it’s so fast it’s sometimes even fun.”

But is the world ready for a buttonless app?

“Yes!” Ryu says, “Have you seen babies play with an iPad? They love swiping and manipulating things directly one-to-one on the screen. There’s nothing more natural than that on a touchscreen device.”

He’s got a point. This weekend, I watched in amazement as a one-and-a-half year old unlocked the iPad, tapped a folder, launched Netflix, browsed the queue and launched his favorite cartoon. Jaw-dropping, really. Clear is the kind of app that’s been designed for him, and for this new generation of smartphone users who grew up with gestures. Forget backward compatibility for those sad sacks who remember Windows and other things with archaic user interface concepts like “menus” and “buttons.” Design for the future. How can you not love the idea?

The app itself has an interesting background, too. It’s a joint project between Realmac Software, Milen Dzhumerov, founder of The Cosmic Machine and Clean Cut Code, and a new studio called Impending Inc. This is the first launch for Impending, which was founded by tap tap tap partner, the above-mentioned Phill Ryu and David Lanham of the Iconfactory. Prior to Impending, the team has been involved with a number of high-profile and popular apps, including Twitterific, MacHeist, Classics and more. Not a bad way to kick off your studio’s debut.

Impending has also been working on another project for the past year and a half, but isn’t talking about the details just yet. They’re working with a very talented team, however, including some of the “usual suspects.” And yes, we’ll probably be obsessed with that app, too.