It already looks like 2012 will be an exciting year for Internet connected TVs with a multitude of announcements at this years's International CES. One announcement that particularly caught my eye was by Canonical for Ubuntu TV, a version of the popular GNU/Linux based operating systems that will run on TV sets. Running Linux on consumer hardware is of course nothing new, quite a lot of gadgets in the home are Linux based and many people will be using Linux every day without even realising it (a couple of good examples are Samsung TVs and Bluray players and Humax set top boxes but there are many, many others). There is also no shortage of operating systems for Smart TVs. What is interesting about this announcement is the application of the Unity interface to a completely different context - the TV. Canonical have made the source code for Ubuntu TV available so I decided to check it out and take a look for myself.
The first point to stress is that this is very early days for the project and not a lot of functionality is available yet. There is enough to get a bit of a sense of what it would be like, but you couldn't use it regularly yet and being development code be aware that things may break. Interestingly the building instructions say that the code was tested on the Acer Aspire Revo, which just happens to be the machine I have connected to my TV. Being a curious Developer type I wanted to have a look around the source code of Ubuntu TV so I built it from source, but you can also get a copy from a PPA. I carefully followed the building instructions that can be found at: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/UbuntuTV/Contributing. Installing the tools needed to build Ubuntu TV took up about 260MB of space on my machine which is not too bad. The Revo is not the quickest of machines at times (speed has been sacrificed for its quiet operation) so there is time for a cup of tea while things compile.
Before attempting to run the code it is worth going through the README.txt file unity-lens-video folder (the contents of which are also available at: http://bazaar.launchpad.net/~s-team/ubuntutv/unity-lens-video/view/head:/README.txt. At the moment Ubuntu TV cannot get metadata for the films on your hard disc itself, instead it uses meta data exported from XBMC, so you will need to install that too to get more of a feel for how Ubuntu TV will look. Once I got everything set up I made a small shell script to make launching it easier. The contents are below (adjust the paths appropriately for your installation).
#! /usr/bin/env bash
GSETTINGS_SCHEMA_DIR=~/bin/ubuntu-tv/data gsettings set com.canonical.Unity2d form-factor tv
metacity --replace &
In the building instructions it says that Ubuntu TV is "designed for 1080p, will not look right for other resolutions", I was actually running it in a lower resolution so everything in the screenshots here will be larger than on a production device. Upon launching you seen an interface that is instantly recognisable as Unity. It is a TV-optimised Unity though, with icons down the side for movies, TV, music and apps. At the moment only the movies and TV tabs do anything, the movies tab will shows films with the metadata extracted with XBMC. The TV tab shows an example of an EPG with some sample data in it. At the moment there is no functionality to control a tuner, so selecting a programme on the EPG will just play a sample video (if you have set it up). It is quite strange seeing the Unity experience in TV form, but it seems quite nice to use and translates well to the big screen.
It looks like there are some very exciting plans for the product's future including integration with Ubuntu One, third party apps and support for multiple screen experiences all being planned. I think this is a very exciting time, the world of Smart TV is still quite young, and no dominant player has yet emerged with Apple TV still being a hobby device and Google TV meeting a mixed reception. Perhaps a vendor who does not have such a high profile in the mobile world might appeal to manufacturers as they won't have to worry about all of those inherited perceptions from mobile devices. However there are quite a few TV platforms already and maybe in the future there will be some consolidation, it could be tough for this new product to survive. Ubuntu TV might also benefit from Boxee's decision to stop supporting PCs and if it stays sufficiently open could be a natural destination for people who have built their own media centre PC connected to their TV. This openness could be difficult to maintain though, as Boxee have found out when negotiating deals with content partners.
Back in 2009 I asked Is it time for an Ubuntu Set Top Box Remix?, with Ubuntu TV Canonical have answered "it is now!". I am looking forward to seeing Ubuntu TV develop further and hope it will be a success.