If Ubuntu wants to succeed on tablets and smartphones, the waiting game must stop

Canonical needs to move faster if it wants to outpace other new entrants into the tablet and smartphone OS market, and deliver its four-screen strategy.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system, revealed plans to bring its Linux-based desktop OS to smartphones at the beginning of 2013, and followed up with the news that the tablet version of the OS is also almost ready for the prime time.

Mark Shuttleworth shows off Ubuntu running on a Nexus. Image: Ben Woods/ZDNet

The idea behind Ubuntu's 'four screens' strategy is smart: a single OS running the same Linux core across the desktop, tablet, smartphone and TV, each offering a similar user experience but also taking advantage of the specific benefits of the type of device it runs on.

The benefit for developers (now the key to all succesful ecosystems) is that it gives them four different platforms to aim at with each app — which means a larger audience and potentially bigger earnings for little or no extra work.

Canonical has also demonstrated that it's got a pretty good grasp on content with its more recent tablet unveiling. It has an integrated media store that manufacturers can brand and offer their own custom content through, but which also still offers all the other movies and shows available unrestricted from the general Ubuntu media store.

The first glimpse of this vision came at CES 2012 in Las Vegas, where Canonical showed off Ubuntu TV.

On the show floor, Ubuntu TV was demonstrated running on Samsung hardware using a custom image designed to be run on that particular TV at that particular show. At the time, it was hoped Ubuntu TV would be shipping by the end of the year.

But it seems that conversations around Ubuntu TV have taken a back seat compared to its phone and tablet plans. "We have not announced any hardware partners for TV as yet. We are in conversations with players in the TV space," a spokeswoman for the company told me. Bringing Ubuntu TV to market is an inherently more complex and longer process than for PCs or other devices, she added.

Despite creating a media store for Ubuntu, it seems partnerships are still the stumbling block for Canonical. According to the spokeswoman, the "need for extensive content integration and certification in different geographies" is making TV a more complex proposition.

She also suggested to me that Canonical foresees one future of the Ubuntu TV experience being achieved by docking a smartphone or tablet, which activates the TV UI.

TV has intrigued all sorts of tech companies, including Apple and Google, but so far without any huge breakthrough occurring. TV has remained stubbornly low-tech compared to smartphones and tablets.

Personally, I'm not that bothered about Ubuntu TV, but I do want to see the OS on smartphones and tablets. I like diversity in the marketplace and it's hard not to support the principles of open source. I want to see these devices arrive.

The first phones are coming around January 2014, to be followed by tablets in around April. It all sounds a long way away.

The trouble is there is now more competition than ever among open source operating systems vying to get manufacturers' attention.

Firefox OS was also only announced recently, but has already got solid commitments from companies like Telefonica and Sony that they will build devices running the platform: a similarly confident showing from Canonical is what is needed, rather than the announcement of a platform followed by a delay of several weeks or months before any committed partners are announced.

I understand that you can already get Ubuntu up and running on smartphones and tablets, and that there's huge community support already to get it out to older devices too.

It's a good plan but I want to see shiny new custom-made hardware on retailers' shelves.

Editorial standards