'Dial it up to 11, hope for the best': Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth on mobiles and Mars

Ubuntu chief and space tourist shares his thoughts on the future of hardware and space exploration.
Written by Jo Best on

The Ubuntu Meizu Pro 5. Image: Canonical

Is Canonical the Cassandra of the tech world? Mark Shuttleworth, the company's co-founder, seems to think so.

"We have an above average track record of calling generational shifts. We call them, but we can't take advantage of them... It's frustrating. We have a clear view of the future, but sometime it's too big a leap to make," he says.

Canonical's prediction for the next generational shift in mobile is convergence - a world where PC, mobile, tablet all offer a common experience appropriate to their form factor, all from a common code base.

The big leap that Canonical couldn't make with convergence was the Edge, an Ubuntu powered phone that the company hoped to start manufacturing using $32m raised from a crowdfunding campaign. While the 2013 Edge broke crowdfunding records, it missed its target, and the phone - a device that had PC specs and could act like a desktop with the right peripherals - was never made.

Canonical is still calling convergence as the next generational shift - "a single copy of the information that defines us", as Shuttleworth puts it, that can be spread over different form factors as required.

In the Canonical vision, you may own a single device - your phone, say - but when you need to work with a keyboard for hammering away on those spreadsheets, or a big screen to watch a movie stored on that device, you can just plug the phone into whatever peripherals and Ubuntu will do the rest. If you want a straightforward tablet experience, there's touch mode. If you want something more akin to your PC, add a mouse and monitor, and Ubuntu will switch to desktop mode. For developers, the shared code base across desktop and mobile and a single SDK.

While the tablet was supposed to have killed PCs stone dead, according to Shuttleworth it's done anything but. Tablets with detachable keyboards sprang up that bear more than a passing resemblance to the laptops they were supposed to replace.

"There's a substantial acceleration in what the PC guys call detachables. That smells to me like a clear trend. There's a value in these [different] form factors, and value in convergence. We're finding an elegant way to deliver on both," he says.

In the future, "the personal computer will be something you take out of your pocket, and the phone will be a piece of glass that connects to that, and so will the tablet. They will be different windows in the soul," said Shuttleworth.

To that end, it's enlisted Spanish hardware maker BQ and Chinese manufacturer Meizu to make Ubuntu-powered tablets and smartphones. The latest devices, the Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu Edition smartphone and BQ Aquarius M10 tablet, debuted at the MWC show in Barcelona earlier this year.

These aren't the first devices from Canonical and its two hardware partners: the first Ubuntu phone followed not long after the Edge failed to come to fruition, and since then a handful of devices have launched. And while no new hardware partners have officially come onboard with Ubuntu beyond Meizu and BQ, Canonical has "informal relations with a bunch more" makers, including OnePlus and Sony, through the release of community ports for their One and Z1 respectively.

Canonical's sustained interest in mobile has raised eyebrows in some quarters. After all, the battlefield of mobile is littered with the fallen, from larger players like Microsoft's Windows Phone and community efforts like Tizen alike.

So why carry on?

"The phone is interesting, personal computing is interesting, but it's not crucial. What's crucial is that we have amazing platforms for developers. They are our most important audience," says Shuttleworth -- and they want to develop end-to-end, from the largest public clouds to the terminals in people's hands.

Engineers remain the most important buyers of the Ubuntu phones and tablets, but they're not the only audience according to Shuttleworth. Along with engineers, those choosing Ubuntu are a "security conscious audience, a bunch of people that care about security more than they care about WhatsApp and Angry Birds', alongside a third audience of "people that want a clean simple way to get on the web and they don't care about a load of apps that they're never going to use".

The aim of the mobile exercise is not to challenge the might of Android or Apple, it's to talk to the technologists that matter, according to the Canonical cofounder. "If it's one percent of the world [using Ubuntu mobile devices], that's OK. It's the one percent that redefine the world every 20 years."

Beyond talking to the one percent, Canonical's mobile efforts have also fed into other strands of its business, including its IoT products. For example, the snappy Ubuntu Core tech that Canonical developed with mobile in mind turned out to have uses from datacentres to IoT, allowing connected objects to use the same app update mechanisms as mobile devices.

"We couldn't have done it so fast if we didn't do the phone," Shuttleworth said.

Snappy Ubuntu Core is a lightweight version of Ubuntu that uses image-based systems management, where updates are deployed and rolled back automatically if needed, and apps are kept isolated from each other.

Using the snappy system and Ubuntu Core, makers of everything from drones to robots, top of rack switches to routers, can keep the OS and apps in read-only images that makes it harder for security foul-ups to happen.

"Security update mechanisms are an easy thing to screw up, they're expensive to do... in a world where you want to put apps on a router from different vendors, some will be malicious. You need to figure out how to keep them isolated from each other and put strong limits on the trust they have. That's something we can share across industries," said Shuttleworth.

From there, it's hoped that hardware manufacturers will opt to use the Ubuntu app store with Canonical taking a cut of the revenue from new apps, much like the way mobile app stores work today.

For now, however, the unit that works on Canonical's IoT and personal computing strands is in what Shuttleworth calls "investment mode", while the cloudy side is where the money is.

So what happened to the prospect of an IPO, first discussed in 2015 and not much heard of since?

According to Shuttleworth, the original question that sparked the discussion was not whether he wanted to take the company public, but whether he could. His response - yes, it would be possible.

"For many years we said 'we don't care about the commercial side'. As long as the business model is hypothetical, it's dangerous to go public," Shuttleworth said. More recently, the company has moved to "delivering products to a rapidly growing market", meaning that an IPO is theoretically now doable.

"Whether we do [take the company public] or not, that's an entirely different question... it's not a priority for us," he added.

Shuttleworth has visited the ISS, becoming the first person from an independent African country to go into space. With a mission to Mars potentially not so far away, would Shuttleworth consider travelling to the red planet?

"Yes, I would. Why not? In 20 years, a one-way ticket could be a perfectly plausible last hurrah. Frontiers are fascinating. There are ecosystems there we have to more respectful of them, certainly more respectful then we have to our own.

"You have to dial it up to 11 and hope for the best. Going to Mars is dialling it up to 11."


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