Canonical, the parent company that oversees the Ubuntu operating system, announced on Wednesday that it has plans to deploy smartphones that are powered by Ubuntu this year. That’s amazing news for consumers, especially if you’re like us and appreciate choice in the marketplace. But what does it really mean, and what will Ubuntu for smartphones offer? How does it differ from Ubuntu for Android? Let’s dive in.

Ubuntu for Phones vs. Ubuntu for Android

First, let’s address that last point. Ubuntu for smartphones is not the same as Ubuntu for Android. In fact, it’s its own standalone mobile operating system that will have its own own ecosystem and own devices to call home. Ubuntu for Android, on the other hand, can be run on Android devices to provide a desktop experience when connected with an external monitor. That, in some ways, can be viewed as a sort of dual-boot experience.

Ubuntu for Android gives us a glimpse of what Ubuntu for phones will provide, but has been available for developers and device partners since Mobile World Congress last year. Ubuntu for phones, on the other hand, will have its own unique mobile user experience, own applications and more.

What isUbuntu?

Ubuntu for phones, the new operating system, offers a brand new user interface. Here’s how Canonical describes the experience: “Your phone is more immersive, the screen is less cluttered, and you flow naturally from app to app with edge magic. The phone becomes a full PC and thin client when docked.” So what’s that mean? Essentially, you can plug the phone into a dock and bridge the gap between your smartphone and the phone. It’s a bit like what Motorola Mobility tried to do with its dock system and the Webtop experience, but appears to be much more powerful because it’s running Ubuntu at its core.

Ubuntu Gesture Controls

Instead of digging through a menu of apps, Ubuntu will allow users to swipe from the left of the screen to quickly see every available application. That means you won’t have to navigate to the home screen and search for those apps you use most. It reminds us a bit of Samsung’s multi screen feature on the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II, actually. The entire experience is based on gesture controls, so you can swipe from the bottom to reveal specific controls to an app, or from the right side of the screen to go to the last application you used.

The Ubuntu Ecosystem

Ubuntu’s ecosystem will rely largely on web applications, which will “sit alongside native apps on Ubuntu,” Canonical said. That means you can run apps that have already been designed with HTML5 – such as Facebook, Google Maps, Spotify and Twitter – but there’s also a full SDK for developers to take advantage of. The good news here? The platform won’t launch with a starved app ecosystem. I’m looking at you, RIM and Microsoft.

Ubuntu Hardware Requirements

So what will phone makers need to pack inside of a device so that it can handle Ubuntu? Actually, the specs aren’t so bad, especially for an entry-level device.

Ubuntu requires a device packs at least a 1GHz Cortex A9 chip with 512MB to 1GB of RAm and 4GB-8GB of internal storage, plus expandable SD storage. Multi-touch is required, but Ubuntu isn’t requiring that its entry-level handsets pack the ability to converge with the desktop.

Want a Superphone Running Ubuntu?

The spec requirements for phone makers are a bit higher. They will need at least a quad-core Cortex A9 chip or an Intel Atom processor, at least 1GB of RAM, a minimum of 32GB of expandable storage and the ability to converge with a desktop for a full computing experience. In other words, the superphone Ubuntu handsets will be able to provide a full desktop experience out of the box, likely in a simple plug-and-play manner. Just pop the phone in your dock, connect a keyboard, mouse and monitor, and you’re up and running.

Who is Ubuntu good for?

Arguably, everyone. Why not have a desktop experience whenever possible? I also think that Ubuntu will be excellent for enterprise customers who want to work in the office and quickly take their work on the go. Then, when they’re back at a desk, they can plug in a dock and get back to work typing comfortably on a real keyboard and with a real mouse.

Isn’t this kind of what Microsoft is trying with Windows Phone 8 and Windows?

No, not really. Microsoft is taking the cloud approach with Sky Drive, so you can work on Office documents or take pictures and access them from a tablet or desktop running Windows. Canonical’s approach is to combine the two – the desktop and the phone – so that your phone actually serves as both.

When Can I Buy One?

Canonical’s CEO said yesterday that devices should ship in 2013, although other reports suggested 2014 is also likely. Ubuntu will be showing off its new platform at the Consumer Electronics Show next week, and we can’t wait to stop by and learn more about what partners are on board, and when consumers will be able to purchase the first devices. Stay tuned!