Ubuntu has embarked on a shift in strategy that recognises the growing use of smartphones and other non-PC devices for access to data and services.
In November, the project's backer Canonical revealed it will adapt the Linux distribution for tablets, phones, cars and smart TVs, with standalone OSes to arrive in 2014.
Over the last several years, the open-source OS has built up a strong following for its desktop and server editions, though it has lost ground recently to Linux Mint and Fedora. One reason could be Ubuntu's switch from Gnome to Unity as the default user interface, which initially drew a mixed reaction from long-time users.
However, the Unity interface is touch-friendly, so it fits more neatly into Ubuntu's long-term plans. Mobile and consumer devices are proliferating, and it is important for Ubuntu as a platform to move with those markets, according to Canonical product manager Peter Goodall.
Goodall, who oversees product strategy for Ubuntu, sat down with ZDNet UK at CES 2012 to talk about what is in store for Ubuntu, why the project felt it necessary to move in a new direction and why it believes it has the nous to succeed.
Q: What's the rationale behind Ubuntu's strategy? The lesser-used operating systems, particularly Linux-based ones, are disappearing from the mobile space.
A: Especially in mobile, there's a lot of OSes [from various parties] that have come and gone very quickly. But they are platforms that were created specifically for a purpose, whether it was for a particular company's hardware or for a particular reason. They are not established platforms.
Canonical is planning Ubuntu's move into phones, tablets, TVs and cars.
We have that heritage, we have that user base, we have the developers, and we have the experience of building and maintaining a platform. For the last four-and-a-half years, we've had an active engagement dealing with [hardware] manufacturers. We have relationships with the top five PC OEMs, from laptops and the mobile perspective, as well as servers.
We've learnt quite a lot about the consumer space, the retail space and how to work with [hardware makers] in the factory process, and we've learned about their concerns. For instance, one of those concerns is that they don't make that much money on their hardware after it goes out. So we've created a platform that allows them to make some money.
For example, we have a full OS that allows you to use your TV as you normally would, but on top of that you have purchasable content that comes through Ubuntu One, our cloud service. It is a subscription service, where you get 5GB [of storage] free. You can also upgrade to the mobile package, so now you have mobile streaming plus an additional 20GB of storage.
In addition, there's the Ubuntu Software Centre. App stores [are] starting to become more popular in the PC space. Classically, people purchased software that might have been $40 (£25) or $50. They had to go to a PC store and have physical media to install. The proliferation of app stores means they can get applications for $2.99, $3.99, maybe $15 — they're not very expensive, and it's easy.
We've had the app store for quite a while now, so that commercial ISVs [independent software vendors] can offer their software, track their sales and get feedback from users. From a [hardware] manufacturer's perspective, things are being sold through their devices, so naturally we can talk about things like revenue share. The more devices that are out there, the more money these manufacturers are making.
You've presumably been in talks with mobile device makers about your plans. Are they receptive?
They're very receptive. There's a lot of pent-up interest in the market for Ubuntu on devices, not just phones. We often get companies approaching us for devices to install Ubuntu on. The reason they come to Ubuntu is not just because it's a compelling OS, but also because we want to work with them — for example, to allow them to integrate their own services into the platform.
There's a lot of pent-up interest in the market for Ubuntu on devices, not just phones. We often get companies approaching us for devices to install Ubuntu on.
These are companies that may already have products in-market with other, larger companies. However, those big companies have a lot of power in the relationship; they can command exactly which hardware they use and which software you have on there, and you can't install competing services. We're very attractive to [device makers] because we don't make demands on their phone, which means they're at a price point where they can really compete. We can integrate their services and allow them to make more money after a sale.
Ubuntu One is an important part of that. It's not specific to Ubuntu — it'll work on Android, iOS and Windows, so I can always access my files and stream music. With Ubuntu TV, it is obviously going to be vital that we have TV services as well, so that’s something we're working on.
Will all the new platforms follow a similar update schedule to the desktop version of Ubuntu?
No. It's important for us to have an update every six months on the Ubuntu platform, but...