Ubuntu Linux enters the smartphone wars

Ubuntu Linux enters the smartphone wars

Summary: Instead of going after both the tablet and smartphone market, Canonical is bravely starting 2013 by trying to become a major player in the smartphone market with an upcoming version of Ubuntu Linux.

Say hello to Ubuntu for smartphones. The bits will be out shortly, phones running it will appear late this year or early next year.

Instead of going after both the tablet and smartphone with a newly-improved touch-enabled version of Ubuntu Linux, Canonical will be focusing its efforts in 2013 on smartphones.

While the smartphone interface is clearly based on Ubuntu's Unity interface, it's not just the same old desktop shrunk down to a smartphone. According to Canonical, the smartphone Ubuntu will use "all four edges of the screen for a more immersive experience. Ubuntu uniquely gives handset OEMs and mobile operators the ability to converge phone, PC and thin client into a single enterprise superphone."
“We expect Ubuntu to be popular in the enterprise market, enabling customers to provision a single secure device for all PC, thin client and phone functions. Ubuntu is already the most widely used Linux enterprise desktop, with customers in a wide range of sectors focused on security, cost and manageability” said Jane Silber, Canonical's CEO in a statement. “We also see an opportunity in basic smartphones that are used for the phone, SMS, web and email, where Ubuntu outperforms thanks to its native core apps and stylish presentation.”

This new version of Ubuntu will be "aimed at two core mobile segments: the high-end superphone, and the entry-level basic smartphone, helping operators grow the use of data amongst consumers who typically use only the phone and messaging but who might embrace the use of web and email on their phone. Ubuntu also appeals to aspirational prosumers who want a fresh experience with faster, richer performance on a lower bill-of-materials device."

At the same time, this isn't just a smartphone operating system. Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's community manager, added on his blog. that "Ubuntu for phones is not just limited to just the Operating System on the phone screen itself. Ubuntu also has the technology, as demonstrated with Ubuntu For Android, to boot a full Ubuntu desktop from the phone when it is docked with a screen. This provides a complete Ubuntu experience in your pocket, for both your phone and your desktop, with a clean consistent look across both screens, and with all your content available on your phone and desktop using Ubuntu One. This is revolutionary."

With the new Ubuntu, you will be able to literally have your desktop in your phone.


The Ubuntu handset interface will include the following features:

1. Edge magic: thumb gestures from all four edges of the screen enable users to find content and switch between apps faster than other phones.
2. Deep content immersion - controls appear only when the user wants them.
3. A beautiful global search for apps, content and products.
4. Voice and text commands in any application for faster access to rich capabilities.
5. Both native and web or HTML5 apps.
6. Evolving personalized art on the welcome screen.

Bacon added, "The design and implementation of the phone is beautiful You can immediately tell it is Ubuntu; the Unity mobile experience looks clean and consistent with the desktop and touch is stunningly integrated. The Ubuntu for phones experience is designed to make all your phone content easier to access and your apps more immersive – every edge has a specific purpose, making all your apps, content and controls instantly accessible, without navigating back to the home screen every time. It’s a uniquely, beautifully converged experience."

For better or worse, Canonical will also be offering "compelling customization options for partner apps, content and services. Operators and OEMs can easily add their own branded offerings. Canonical’s personal cloud service, Ubuntu One, provides storage and media services, file sharing and a secure transaction service which enables partners to integrate their own service offerings easily."

This offering isn't aimed for smartphone modders Instead, it's for OEMs and carriers. "Canonical makes it easy to build phones with Ubuntu. The company provides engineering services to offload the complexity of maintaining multiple code bases which has proven to be a common issue for smartphone manufacturers, freeing the manufacturer to focus on hardware design and integration. For silicon vendors, Ubuntu is compatible with a typical Android Board Support Package (BSP). This means Ubuntu is ready to run on the most cost-efficient chipset designs."

Bacon added, "To be quite clear, this announcement is not for a physical Ubuntu Phone that you can purchase yet. The announcement is for the Ubuntu for phones platform that we are presenting to handset operators and OEMs as a solution that they can bring to market. The Ubuntu phone offers great performance on handsets with a low bill of materials, while opening up new opportunities for phone and PC convergence at the top end of the market. This is no mockup or flash demo though; this is a real platform, and you have to see it in action…it really is stunning."

That said, according to Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and VP of Products at Canonical, "Users with unlocked phones, starting with Galaxy Nexus phones, will be able to run Ubuntu."

Shuttleworth also believes that "Canonical is uniquely placed with a single operating system for client, server and cloud, and a unified family of interfaces for the phone, the PC and the TV." And that, “We are defining a new era of convergence in technology, with one unified operating system that underpins cloud computing, data centers, PCs and consumer electronics." Specifically, Shuttleworth, in a press conference, said that eventually "a single Ubuntu image will be able to run with a smartphones, tablet, TV, or desktop face." He hopes that this universal version will be available in April 2014 with Ubuntu 14.04.

In a press conference, Shuttleworth added that he's well aware that smartphones is a "hotly contested" area but he believes that Ubuntu has unique advantages for both end-users and developers. "We have ample evidence of interest from both carriers and OEMs." Shuttleworth added that Ubuntu for Android will ship in 2013 will ship from a brand-name phone vendor. Ubuntu for smartphones is expected to ship in the last quarter of 2013 or first-quarter of 2014. Canonical will be showing off this new spin on Ubuntu at CES in the next few days. 

Related Stories:

Topics: Ubuntu, Hardware, Linux, Mobile OS, Mobility, Open Source, Smartphones, Software Development, Bring Your Own Device

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I have to say

    I really like the way that looks.
    Michael Alan Goff
    • Counter

      And I must say I really dislike the way Unity looks.

      Canonical has no taste at all.
      • Why the Unity hate?

        Any time somebody tries to change the desktop paradigm, somebody whines about how it's horrible.

        Are we supposed to always maintain the status quo?
        Michael Alan Goff
        • Samsung should like this.

          Samsung is obviously worried about been squeezed out by Apple and Google making their own handsets.

          Samsung has been playing around with the Tizen OS (formerly Meego). Samsung should also look at Ubuntu Phone.

          It should also appeal to phone users who don't want to play Apple and Google's game.
          • Wow

            Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online(Click on menu Home)

            Happy New Year!
          • Google Won't

            They seem to be going after Android to get a hold, and take on Apple later. I don't think they will be one of the top 2, but the might have more success than Windows Phone.
            Stephan Sevenyoln
          • Samsung worried? Why?

            Samsung is set to surpass Nokia as the largest cellphone manufacturer in the world: http://goo.gl/vPbXK and Google doesn't make their own cellphones. They rely on other manufacturers for the Nexus like Samsung and LG.

            I agree that the Tizen OS seems intriguing for Samsung, but am curious if people would want a smartphone without access to any real recognized "app market".

            Linux has a woeful 1.19% market share of the desktop world. That's Linux as a whole, not just Ubuntu. [http://goo.gl/TGnf] Is a "pretty face" a reason to go to a new mobile OS with essentially "0" market recognition and virtually no apps? Especially with RIM coming out with BB10 and what is being touted as a rebirth of their company?

            I've had phones from all kinds of mobile OS. Each has their merits. But why would any manufacturer put this on a phone when the Android OS is free as well?
          • The reason why ....

            Because its not Android, it doesn't have to rely on java based riddled malware apps to run. Ubuntu Phone OS. Besides its something different. Something fresh, free and fully open.

            Its also much more classier, streetwise and beautiful looking, that's why.
          • FUD

            you probably have not used Android let alone the latest versions
          • really?

            If not using Android apps, then what would they run? A smartphone without apps is just another WP8.
          • Ignorance

            from your comment, I assume you are unaware that Android is a Linux based phone operating system. Ubuntu will just run as a different shell. That's what Ubuntu for Android is.

            Seriously, there are at least five different Linux based phone systems out there. Android alone accounts for more than half of the Smartphone market. Other Linux systems run on the non smartphone phones also. Realistically, then, Linux accounts for the largest share of phone OS. Symbian is still second. Apple is third with iOS. Rim is fourth. Windows is a distant seventh, behind even Palm and WebOS. (both Linux based BTW.)

            Still, as Microsoft and RIM are making money, they won't drop out. Looks like fun times ahead.

            As an aside, I have seen a couple of articles on the Ubuntu based phones, but, there are no manufacturers, and the pictures only show tablet applications. What about use as a phone? I haven't seen any Ubuntu applications for phone use, or for texting or PIM that tie to the phone. Without those, this will fail. Perhaps Ubuntu phones could run with Android in a window? Linux would allow that easily. Or, is there a phone application that I'm not aware of?

            If hardware appears, it will be interesting to see how well it works as a phone.
          • SCALABILITY

            Scalability is the future of OS as devices converge and transform.
            Ubuntu seems to have that as core of their design.
            It is also easy to implement Virtual Machines with Ubuntu and head into what I believe will be the future of devices. You will buy a phone with the processing and connectivity you want and then just have a tablet/laptop/TV/carputer/fridge/kios display as a "dumb terminal" using standardised audio/visual I/O protocols. The phone (or whatever device you want to use as the CPU) will multi-VM to each device as it is in proximity/connectivity.
            Syncing will be old news, software updates on just your CPU not the current bandwidth waste on each device which is the current norm. You backup one device and if that device is lost/stolen/damaged in any way, you recover your OS on ANY CPU and you are back to where you were with a single recovery.
            You upgrade your phone/CPU device and all your devices get the new functionalities as they are simply I/O terminals.
            You buy a 10" tablet for the screen, nor the CPU/GPU or memory, or connectivity. You retrofit an double-DIN screen in your 80's car and it becomes a carputer running off your phone. You buy a TV and it becomes a smart TV running off our phone. You go to use a screen at an internet cafe/airport and it virtualises a session on your phone.
            Not many OS has the scalability to make this happen.
            iOS? no chance. Apple too stubborn and iOS is the most unscalable OS implementation in the market. Today's iOS struggles to do what people wanted 2 years ago let alone the future. UI is very device dependant.
            Android? very possible. needs a huge shift in app design. Android is pretty much doing the scalable thing already with transforming phones like the Asus Padfone. Develop windowing and multi-instance features like what Samsung is doing on Note II and it becomes a capable scalable UI. Multiuser? tick. multitasking? tick. Android is heading that way very quickly.
            Ubuntu is leapfrogging all these by using a fully featured desktop OS with a phone UI rather than a phone OS modified to have desktop features. It has the best potential for scalability. Now it needs people to get behind it. The smart people will take to it. The dumb will need a lot of smoke and mirror marketing to follow.
        • I like it

          I just wish you could put the launcher at the bottom of the screen (left side works on the phone, but not on desktop)
          • bottom launcher

            Ever used a web browser

        • Of course, new ideas should be tried

          But we should understand that most of them will be bad.
          John L. Ries
        • we should go back to VT100 monitors, green screens, no graphics,

          Now, those were the days.. :)

          oh wait, what about a model 28 teletype, with high speed punched tape data I/O, and 5-bot baudo communications, and a cassette interface..
          • Actually, that's Microsoft

            Despite the "Modern" name, Win 8 uses what Microsoft now calls the "flat" look - no shadows, animation, or other eye candy. Ubuntu continues to improve hinting and discovery, which is perhaps one reason so many analysts have called Ubuntu on phones "beautiful".
          • Windows Phone beauty is in simplicity and live tiles.

            Ram U
          • Windows Phone is a babies toy

            Boring is the word your looking for.
          • How many is "so many analysts"?

            Honestly, this is the first time I've heard of any definite attempt to put Ubuntu on phones.