Behind Ubuntu's shift into mobile

Canonical's Peter Goodall, head of product strategy for Ubuntu, tells ZDNet UK why the Linux distribution is moving into phones, tablets, TVs and cars, and why the project is well placed to succeed there
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

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.

Ubuntu 11.10 dash

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...

...as you move into consumer devices that doesn't necessarily work. Most frequently, the device will go out with a specific version of Ubuntu, and we'll do updates to it, but not necessarily upgrades.

Do the mobile platforms have the security features needed to keep IT admins happy, given the rise of 'bring your own' devices in the enterprise?
That's something we think about a lot. We have features from the desktop. From a platform perspective, [we're thinking] of doing things like encrypting the entire hard drive or just the user data, or having individual applications that can actually create an encrypted area.

We're also thinking about securing individual applications. For instance, if I have an app for a bank, there's securing the data on there. There's also isolating it from other apps, so if you download a malicious app it can't damage your system: it can't get to data you don't want it to, and as well as that, it can only do limited things to the system. We understand that's really important. You don't want to brick your phone or TV.

How far away are we from seeing this come to fruition? Are you quite a way through development already?
Throughout 2012 we'll be talking more about all these things, about the phone and the tablet. Right now we're not talking about announcement timeframes. It is our intention to reveal more and more as we have things that are ready to be shown.

It's a strategy that has been developing over a number of years. In 2008, we got into the notebook market, which at the time was a big market. That was really where we started thinking about not only consumer devices, but about the user experience.

We started really putting a focus on design and taking control over how the user interacts with the device.

Was that the thinking behind the Unity interface?
That was the genesis of it. We started really putting a focus on design and taking control over how the user interacts with the device — really thinking critically about it. Not only about "How do you interact with this device?" but coming up with a design that is scalable, whether down or up.

With the releases of Ubuntu, we've created this design where you have a series of elements that could be used in different ways. [We] maintain common elements across form factors — if you look at the TV versus the desktop, you can definitely tell that these are related. They all use a very similar UI, but we all respect that each form factor has its own use cases and challenges.

So, each platform is essentially going to use a custom version of the Unity interface?
It is an adaptation of the Unity interface, not a custom design. It's important that it's not a drastic change and we're using that infrastructure. It's not just about the UI; we've done a lot of thinking about the back-end as well.

Things like the notification area, for example, have previously been like the Wild Wild West — left-clicking brings up one menu, right-clicking gives you another — it's really confusing. What we did was create interface guidelines around that.

We've thought about a lot of elements. As we move into mobile, we're thinking about even deeper in the stack. So that's really what we're having discussions about; how [elements] work in the back-end, but that aren't necessarily that obvious from the front-end.

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