The State Of uTouch or: Fujitsu Today, ARM Tomorrow

Even though touchscreens devices are popping everywhere these days, actually putting your hands on Linux is getting harder and harder to do.


Ubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' launched last April, complete with the new Unity Graphical User Interface (GUI) and its multi-touch gesture language, uTouch. At the time I really dug uTouch and found it to be just what the doctor ordered, not overly complicated or pretentious - it 'just worked' (see how uTouch in Ubuntu 11.10 stacks up here).

Unfortunately, there was serious lack of compatible hardware units available on the market. You see, the N-Trig DuoSense is the only capacitive touchscreen digitizer to support four (or more) finger input. So, only those x86 touchscreen devices using N-Trig screens will work with uTouch out-of-the-proverbial-box (unfortunately, the multitude of Wacom-based devices are a no-go).

When Ubuntu 11.10 'Oneiric Ocelot' launched in October, that out-of-the-box functionality disappeared. Several Launchpad bugs were reported by owners of N-Trig-enabled units, and myself. Eventually these bugs were combined into Bug #724831. By Halloween we had a partial fix, but it wasn't until the week before Christmas that the issue was truly resolved, and a few weeks ago the Launchpad Janitor finally closed this bug. Fortunately, it appears the upcoming Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (Long Term Support) 'Precise Pangolin', won't experience the multi-touch hiccups that plagued Oneiric Ocelot.

Software issues aside, you're still going to need a compatible hardware unit if you're interested in developing apps for, testing, using, or just fooling around with Ubuntu in a multi-touch environment.

Convertible Tablet PCs

Making matters worse, the number of suitable tablet PCs decreased dramatically between the release of Natty Narwhal and Oneiric Ocelot. The Dell Studio 17, Dell Latitude XT2, and HP TouchSmart tx2 all went end-of-life. Ever since the bizarre and hasty disappearance of Dell's Latitude XT3 just a few weeks after it began shipping last September, there is now only one manufacturer still selling convertible tablet PCs with the Ubuntu-friendly N-Trig screen.

It's almost appropriate that Fujitsu, the main hardware partner of now-deceased Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) champion Sun Microsystems, is that manufacturer. Fujitsu has been nurturing a positive relationship with various FOSS communities, companies, and projects (including Lustre, Red Hat, and PostgreSQL) for nearly two decades. Whether by design or circumstance, that trend continues today in the realm of multi-touch hardware for Ubuntu. Fujitsu's line of N-Trig-based x86 multi-touch convertible tablet PCs include the 10.1-inch LIFEBOOK T580, the 12.1-inch LIFEBOOK T730 & T731, and the 13.3-inch T901. Dubbed the “slate-beater”, the Fujitsu LIFEBOOK T580 is the unit I've had the opportunity to spend the most time with – see my IT-centric review at Tom's IT Pro. As one of the only 10-inch capacitive touchscreen convertibles to exist, the netbook-sized LIFEBOOK T580 is ideal for keeping up with Ubuntu's multi-touch progress.

If you already happen to own one of the older end-of-life tablet PCs, you can go hands-on with Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot today (fully update it first). If you don't already have an N-Trig-based tablet PC, Fujitsu is your only option (at least for the time being).

Slate PCs

While convertible tablet PCs are the obvious choice for working with Ubuntu in its current state of multi-touch support, a handful of keyboard-less slate PCs have appeared in the last quarter of 2011. The Dell Latitude ST, Fujitsu STYLISTIC Q550, HP Slate 2, and Samsung Series 7 are among the ostensibly compatible Windows 7 slabs. Personally, between the spotty touch-only experience on Windows 7 and the Oneiric multi-touch snafu, I wouldn't want to be caught without a keyboard and mouse.


But of course the new push toward touchscreen input isn't being driven by the decade-old tablet PC, or even Windows 7 slates. It's being driven by ARM-based consumer electronics tablets, such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. A source at Canonical indicated to me that they're switching focus on uTouch testing toward Ubuntu for ARM, most likely in order to take advantage of that flourishing hardware ecosystem.

It's been a rocky year trying to go hands-on with Linux, but today there's always Fujitsu, and maybe tomorrow ARM can lend a hand as well.

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