2013: The year of the Ubuntu Linux tablet and smartphone?

Canonical appears to be getting ready to release a fully touch-enabled Ubuntu Linux operating system. Will Ubuntu tablets and smartphones be far behind?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Countdown to the Ubuntu smartphone and tablet?

Canonical, Ubuntu Linux's parent company, is hinting in big, bright letters that's its about to release a fully touch-enabled version of Ubuntu Unity. The site's banner headline now reads "So close, you can almost touch it." with a clock counting down to 1 PM Eastern time, January 2nd. If this is indeed what Canonical is planning, can Ubuntu-powered tablet and smartphones be far behind?

Canonical has been planning to bring Ubuntu to tablets since it first introduced its controversial Unity interface in 2010. Then, in conversations with Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, I was told that Unity was meant to be Ubuntu's master interface for desktops, netbooks, and tablets.

At the time, while a tablet version of Ubuntu wasn't in Canonical's immediate plans, Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu Community Manager, told me that "all the pieces are in place to create an Ubuntu tablet." Even then, before Unity was launched, I was shown the first baby steps to multi-touch Unity.

Slideshow: Say hello to Ubuntu 12.10 Linux

Since then, Ubuntu has been working hard to incorporate full-featured touch functionality into Unity. In late 2011, Shuttleworth confirmed that Canonical would be bringing Ubuntu Linux to smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs.

Shuttleworth said at the time that, "This is a natural expansion of our idea as Ubuntu as Linux for human beings. As people have moved from desktop to new form factors for computing, it's important for us to reach out to out community on these platforms. So, we'll embrace the challenge of how to use Ubuntu on smartphones, tablets and smart-screens."

In a December 2012 Slashdot interview, Shuttleworth made it clear that Ubuntu on mobile was still in their plans. "Let's make one OS that runs on the phone AND on your supercomputer. We're close to that now - we know Ubuntu makes a great cloud OS and a great server OS and a great desktop. So I think the next frontier is to create a seamless experience from the embedded world to the cloud," said Shuttleworth.

Shuttleworth continued, the "mobile world is crucial to the future of the PC. This month, for example, it became clear that the traditional PC is shrinking in favor of tablets. So if we want to be relevant on the PC, we have to figure out how to be relevant in the mobile world first."

He plans to do this by focusing on establishing "a great story around Ubuntu and mobile form factors - the tablet and the phone - on which we can build deeper relationships with everyday consumers. All the major PC companies [such as Dell] now ship PC's with Ubuntu pre-installed. So we have a very solid set of working engagements in the industry. But those PC companies are nervous to promote something new to PC buyers. If we can get PC buyers familiar with Ubuntu as a phone and tablet experience, then they may be more willing buy it on the PC too."

So what can we expect tomorrow? I think Shuttleworth already told us part of it in the Slashdot interview. He said, "we've said clearly that the phone and tablet are key stories we need to tell by 14.04 LTS [Long Term Support]."

It that wasn't clear enough for you, on his own blog Shuttleworth recently wrote, "Unity in 2013 will be all about mobile--bringing Ubuntu to phones and tablets."

That's all well and good, but I think Canonical will actually have bigger news than just fully embracing phones and tablets with the April 2014 release of Ubuntu. First, I expect Ubuntu to announce that it will more fully support the ARM processor. Today, only the older Ubuntu 12.04 is fully supported on the ARM architecture.

The big news I hope to see tomorrow, and here I'm speculating, is the announcement of Ubuntu hardware tablet and smartphone partners. I feel pretty certain we'll see such news.

After all, without ready-to-run Ubuntu mobile devices, only hardcore Ubuntu hackers will bother with it, and Shuttleworth clearly has much bigger plans for Ubuntu on mobile than to be another alternative firmware such as Android CyanogenMod. Shuttleworth wants Ubuntu on phones and tablets to be as big a player as Android or iOS, not a mere hobbyist operating system. It won't be easy, but I'm sure that's his goal. 

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