Can Ubuntu Linux win on smartphones and tablets?

Canonical wants Ubuntu Linux to compete with Android, iOS, and Windows on tablets and smartphones. Can it?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Mark Shuttleworth, businessman.

Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu leader and businessman.

Mark Shuttleworth is as close as Linux has ever had to Steve Jobs. He has vision, he's articulate, and he can move an audience. But, can he move a market that's in love with Android phones and Apple iPad tablets to give Ubuntu a chance? I think he has a shot.

I've known for over a year that Ubuntu was going to try for the smartphone and tablet market, so when Ubuntu's founder Mark Shuttleworth told me he was going to expand to devices, I wasn't surprised. Technically, Ubuntu, and its parent company, Canonical, have the chops to do it.

In addition, Ubuntu has been working and delivering Unity for more than two years now. Unlike Windows 8's Metro, which also seeks to be a universal PC and device desktop, Ubuntu Unity already has experienced users and developers.

True, many experienced Linux users don't care for Ubuntu's Unity interface, which is meant to work well on PCs, smartphones and tablets, it was never meant for them. Unity is meant for users who want an easy to user interface and don' care if it's Linux under the hood. That may be heresy to die-hard Linux users, but it certainly has worked well for Google with its Linux-based Android devices.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10 and the look of Ubuntu's future tablet. (Photo Gallery)

Why is Shuttleworth doing this? As he explained this morning at the Ubuntu Developers Summit and on his blog, "The way we access the Internet, connect to our friends, listen to music, watch films and go about our daily lives is rapidly evolving. We now use a diverse set of devices with an array of operating systems, which have a range of connectivity. Few people are exclusively loyal to a single technology provider."

Consider this quote from Paul Maritz of VMware:

Three years ago over 95 percent of the devices connected to the Internet were personal computers. Three years from now that number will probably be less than 20 percent. More than 80 percent of the devices connected to the Internet will not be Windows-based personal computers.

Shuttleworth continued, "Make no mistake--just as the world is changing for manufacturers so is it changing for Linux distributions. Today, 70% of people in Egypt access the Internet solely via the phone. Even in the US that figure is a startling 25%."

In short, Shuttleworth plans on taking Ubuntu to where the users are, and the users aren't just on desktops anymore. He's not the only one to have seen this though. MeeGo, HP's webOS, and numerous other Linux distributions have tried for the mobile operating system space, and not gone much of anywhere.

I think Ubuntu has a realistic chance to make a plan on smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs, and it's not because of the technology. The technology is a given. We already know Linux does just fine on all those devices, and Unity was designed from early on for those platforms as well as the PC.

No, what really makes me think that Shuttleworth can do it is his pragmatic approach to the business side. Shuttleworth wants Canonical to the little company, unlike Apple, Google, or Microsoft, that's willing to go the extra mile for an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), independent software vendors (ISV), or carrier. For example, if you're an ISV or carrier and you want more of the revenue stream, Canonical will be willing to dicker.

He wants Ubuntu to be the OEMs and carriers' alternative choice. As Shuttleworth told me, "The smartest OEM strategy is to play people off against each other. Thus, some OEMs want to have Ubuntu as a disruptive element. A strong Ubuntu can be both more co-operative with OEMs than a larger company and give them leverage with Google and Microsoft."

This is a realpolitik view of the new device operating system, business world that makes good, hard sense to me. Besides, as Shuttleworth is also well aware, the smartphone and tablet market is changing every day. It's just possible that Ubuntu can go from being a practical alternative mobile operating system to being everyone's favorite if Apple iOS, Google Android, or Microsoft Windows 8 trip up.

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Mark Shuttleworth image by Joi, CC 2.0.

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