Whether you believe the iPad hype or not, it's clear that touchscreen devices represent an important emerging hardware niche. Canonical responded to that reality recently with the release of uTouch 1.0, a software stack designed to ensure solid multi-touch and gesture support on Ubuntu.  Here are the details, along with some thoughts.

Apple certainly didn't invent the touchscreen market (just like it didn't invent the OS X kernel, or the Safari browser, or a lot of other software that it ripped off from open-source developers, but I digress...), which has existed for years.  But the popularity of the iPad, combined with smaller mobile Internet devices and touchscreen-enabled laptops and tablets, has underscored the importance of this niche over the course of the last year.

Indeed, Gartner projected last April that fifty percent of computer users age 15 and younger will use touchscreen computers by 2015 (although it advances more conservative figures for the adoption of touchscreen devices in the enterprise).  Similarly, another analysis estimated the touchscreen market to grow by 5000 percent in 2010, with exponential growth continuing in coming years.

Multi-Touch and Ubuntu

At first glance, the multi-touch revolution may not appear very significant for Ubuntu or the free-software world.  So far, the most popular consumer touchscreen devices, like the iPad and Kindle, have been highly proprietary and poor candidates for running Linux (sure, geeks like this guy can make Ubuntu run on closed devices with enough hacking, but they haven't gotten very far beyond booting the kernel).  Where Linux has penetrated the touchscreen world, it has been mostly on cellphones in the form of Android, which has little in common with desktop-oriented distributions like Ubuntu.

But that's likely to change as PC makers follow Apple in releasing "slate" devices designed for general productivity, and as touchscreens become standard fare on laptops and netbooks.  The days when developers of desktop Linux can count on the keyboard and mouse being the chief input devices are numbered, making support for multi-touch hardware essential.

That's why uTouch, which brings a comprehensive gesture-support API to Linux, makes sense.  Hardware drivers for most touchscreen devices have existed for a while, but there was no easy way for application developers to take advantage of the power of multi-touch functionality.

uTouch, which will ship with Ubuntu 10.10 in October, helps to address this deficiency.  As Canonical promises:
With Ubuntu 10.10 (the Maverick Meerkat), users and developers will have an end-to-end touch-screen framework — from the kernel all the way through to applications.

Canonical's Contributions

It's worth mentioning that Canonical's sponsorship of the new multi-touch API should serve as a response to some of the criticism leveled against the company in recent weeks in the wake of a blog post charging Ubuntu with leeching off the work of other open-source projects.

It's certainly true that a huge proportion of the code that constitutes Ubuntu is sponsored by organizations other than Canonical.  It's also true that some of the projects that Canonical does undwrite, like Ubuntu One and Launchpad, are proprietary or were for a long time.

In the case of uTouch, however, Canonical has contributed software vital to preserving the competitiveness of Linux as a desktop operating system.  And since it's released under the GPL, all members of the free-software ecosystem, whether they use Ubuntu or not, have the opportunity to benefit.