If Ubuntu wants to succeed on tablets and smartphones, the waiting game must stop

If Ubuntu wants to succeed on tablets and smartphones, the waiting game must stop

Summary: Canonical needs to move faster if it wants to outpace other new entrants into the tablet and smartphone OS market, and deliver its four-screen strategy.


Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system, revealed plans to bring its Linux-based desktop OS to smartphones at the beginning of 2013, and followed up with the news that the tablet version of the OS is also almost ready for the prime time.

Mark Shuttleworth shows off Ubuntu running on a Nexus. Image: Ben Woods/ZDNet

The idea behind Ubuntu's 'four screens' strategy is smart: a single OS running the same Linux core across the desktop, tablet, smartphone and TV, each offering a similar user experience but also taking advantage of the specific benefits of the type of device it runs on.

The benefit for developers (now the key to all succesful ecosystems) is that it gives them four different platforms to aim at with each app — which means a larger audience and potentially bigger earnings for little or no extra work.

Canonical has also demonstrated that it's got a pretty good grasp on content with its more recent tablet unveiling. It has an integrated media store that manufacturers can brand and offer their own custom content through, but which also still offers all the other movies and shows available unrestricted from the general Ubuntu media store.

The first glimpse of this vision came at CES 2012 in Las Vegas, where Canonical showed off Ubuntu TV.

On the show floor, Ubuntu TV was demonstrated running on Samsung hardware using a custom image designed to be run on that particular TV at that particular show. At the time, it was hoped Ubuntu TV would be shipping by the end of the year.

But it seems that conversations around Ubuntu TV have taken a back seat compared to its phone and tablet plans. "We have not announced any hardware partners for TV as yet. We are in conversations with players in the TV space," a spokeswoman for the company told me. Bringing Ubuntu TV to market is an inherently more complex and longer process than for PCs or other devices, she added.

Despite creating a media store for Ubuntu, it seems partnerships are still the stumbling block for Canonical. According to the spokeswoman, the "need for extensive content integration and certification in different geographies" is making TV a more complex proposition.

She also suggested to me that Canonical foresees one future of the Ubuntu TV experience being achieved by docking a smartphone or tablet, which activates the TV UI.

TV has intrigued all sorts of tech companies, including Apple and Google, but so far without any huge breakthrough occurring. TV has remained stubbornly low-tech compared to smartphones and tablets.

Personally, I'm not that bothered about Ubuntu TV, but I do want to see the OS on smartphones and tablets. I like diversity in the marketplace and it's hard not to support the principles of open source. I want to see these devices arrive.

The first phones are coming around January 2014, to be followed by tablets in around April. It all sounds a long way away.

The trouble is there is now more competition than ever among open source operating systems vying to get manufacturers' attention.

Firefox OS was also only announced recently, but has already got solid commitments from companies like Telefonica and Sony that they will build devices running the platform: a similarly confident showing from Canonical is what is needed, rather than the announcement of a platform followed by a delay of several weeks or months before any committed partners are announced.

I understand that you can already get Ubuntu up and running on smartphones and tablets, and that there's huge community support already to get it out to older devices too.

It's a good plan but I want to see shiny new custom-made hardware on retailers' shelves.

Topics: Mobile OS, Open Source, Smartphones, Tablets, Ubuntu

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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  • What About Smartphone+Tablet Convergence Other Than ASUS?

    I want to see manufacturers other than ASUS that will allow me to dock a smartphone into a tablet. Samsung, LG, and ZTE always love physical home buttons and HTC (and any others) always love capacitive buttons in the bottom of the screen. I love the original ASUS PadFone with on-screen buttons for back/home/all applications but the later version of PadFones just went backwards.

    And yes, I'd love to see Ubuntu being an option when choosing a smartphone.
    Grayson Peddie
  • If Ubuntu wants to succeed on tablets and smartphones, the waiting game mus

    It won't succeed because its linux. This is how linux works, you have a bunch of people who all want to take the project in their own direction but can never agree and so nothing gets done except a lot of arguing. Meanwhile their linux project suffers and by the time they agree and actually start compiling the project is out of date. They can delay all they want. Its not like ubuntu has a history of being good or even having a usable UI.
    • "It won't succeed because its linux."

      Samsung just went ahead of Apple in sales of Android based smartphones.
      Not bad for linux devices.
    • They will succeed

      Because they are doing what Windows 8 should have done from the start. They've beaten everyone to the punch and their OS is already 75% there to making this work. At first people were upset about Unity but now Unity makes more sense than ever. On the desktop it's not as nice as having a start menu but it's world better than being stuck with tiles, and on phones and tablets it's just as good as tiles.

      Pair that with Steam bringing games and video driver support to Linux (NVIDIA and ATI have both updated drivers since the SteamBox announcement) and we have the perfect setting for an Ubuntu victory.

      This will succeed, even a 2% market penetration would be a huge success but I'm betting that it will do far better. This plan offers something that no one else does, this is a true innovation. One device that can seemlessly morph into 3 other types of devices. Desktop, tablet, phone, and gaming console (thanks to Steam) all in one.

      Anyone who loves technology should all be very excited for this.

      I am :-D
  • Ubuntu hype

    Oh dear, this sounds like another "this is the year of Ubuntu!"
    Tim Acheson
    • Actually next year.

      Having a 1 year ramp up is an incredibly smart move for an open source project. They need to get as many developers on board as possible so that when it arrives the software is there to take advantage of it.

      Furthermore, this collaboration with hardware vendors is unprecedented for Linux. This has never happened before.
  • I'm still not convinced that the same OS in phones and desktops is good

    And yes they are already late, it's not going to be easy for them to gain any significant market share.
    More options never hurt consumers, Ubuntu is a valid free alternative to windows, maybe it can also be a valid alternative to android and iOS on mobile devices.
  • This will be great

    You just have to wait.

    It should be ready for 2014. Maybe 2015.

    There will be a ton of hardware partners lined up.

    Just like there were for Ubuntu TV. Or will be. In 2014. Maybe 2015.

    You just have to wait.
    • Lazy trolling

      You just have to wait.

      It should be ready for 2014. Maybe 2015.

      There will be a ton of hardware partners lined up.

      Just like there were for Silverlight. Or will be. In 2014. Maybe 2015.

      You just have to wait.
  • Let's see now ...

    We have greedy respondents who want their free stuff now! Damnit! However much it costs somebody else.

    We have kneejerk respondents who see anything related to linux and immediately start spouting nonsense and outright lies.

    We're lucky to see two or three actually thoughtful responses. (and I don't mean you, Toddy).

    Basically a meaningless "space filler" article.
  • Timing, timing

    For me it couldn't come at a better time. I am about to leave the BB fold, but will a Linux phone be there when I need it? Just hope so.
    Stephen Kirby
  • I can't believe it

    I can't believe I just read an entire article and the only thing I learned is that the author has no patience.
  • Why bother

    Future is HTML5 with OS specific apps doing a slow fade away. How fast your OS can parse HTML will become the deciding factor.
    Tired Tech
  • It would seem to me that they should be able to...

    pick a current Smartphone and Tablet that are out now and do some good Beta work with existing platforms. Many Tablets and some phones already have HDMI out and as a result, could be use to make inroads on some of the Internet TV functionality also. I think a strong selling point would be for Ubuntu to commit to a couple of current Phone and Tablet models that have already or are soon to be abandoned as far as Android Updates. When that happens, some users will want to move on to new hardware allowing the old Hardware to be migrated to Ubuntu OS. This could help build momentum and a following for the products to be announced later.
    • I wholeheartedly agree...

      Why line up OEM's who are concentrating on other things. Just start building support for phones and tablets that are going to be "obsolete", which is what Ubuntu has done with the PC. Personally, I'm still using a computer that is 5+ years old as my main desktop, with 12.10 on it. Originally, when I first built it, it ran SuSe, and it was built for graphics development.

      Designing so that people can take already existent hardware and put your system on top of it, as well as courting OEM's is the smarter course to take.
      • Sensible is as sensible does

        Of course it makes sense to go for a market that's only going to get bigger in the current economic times, older devices.

        Going head-to-head with the latest and greatest mobile devices is a lovely idea but a huge gamble. The mobile market is red-hot, everyone's gambling on their added value to the end-user and app developers to fund their future.

        Businessmen make money by gambling. Much easier to gamble on a market of yesteryear's devices that just need a modern OS to extend their lives. Could that bring mainstream success? Perhaps.

        Good luck to Canonical, they're moving their OS into the mainstream whichever way they can.

        When you have no support, the bottom seems such a logical place to start.