Mark Shuttleworth: Serious people are saying Ubuntu is better than Windows 8 on tablets

The Ubuntu OS on smartphones and tablets has been grabbing headlines and gaining support quickly since the plans were formally unveiled at the beginning of 2013. ZDNet met the man behind Ubuntu to see what he had to say about the project.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor on
Mark Shuttlework
Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth shows off Ubuntu on a Nexus 10 tablet

ZDNet met with Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, at Mobile World Congress to talk about Ubuntu across tablets, smartphones and more.

Ubuntu OS on the desktop is becoming an increasingly recognisable brand and has a long heritage in the open source community, but rather than confine itself to the one platform, Canonical set out on the path to use the same core kernel and deliver the same platform across smartphones, tablets, the desktop and TVs.

Clearly not one to turn down a challenge, Shuttleworth was one of the first space tourists, 2013 has gotten off to a flying start for the ambitious South African entrepreneur and has already seen the unveiling of the platform on smartphones and tablets.

Q: There's been a lot of buzz around Ubuntu and its device strategy ahead of Mobile World Congress, are there more announcements on the horizon?

A: This is a big one for us. We have a silicon partner that we'll announce after the show, but they are a very significant force in the mobile ecosystem and they are optimising prototypes.

It feels like it has been quite a long road, with hints of what was to come with launch of Ubuntu for Android.

Around four years ago we mapped out the vision — phone, tablet, PC, TV — and we built a design team and took that on as the challenge. The result you see is really elegant. This [the tablet version] is the missing link, the bridge, between what we showed you six weeks ago and the PC stuff. In a sense we've been hiding in plain sight. You can go back to 2009 and look at things that landed in the distro and see now why those pieces came together.

It seems like each form factor for Ubuntu could essentially act as a companion device for another, for example, with tablets and smartphones. Given that, do you foresee retailers bundling Ubuntu tablets with Ubuntu smartphones?

In one version of the vision, you just get a smartphone and then you dock it to a bigger piece of glass and you get a tablet and you undock it and you have a smartphone. It's just one device.

What's the enterprise angle?

We have some unique stories for the enterprise, full disk encryption for the enterprise and separately encryption of each user session, and this is Ubuntu so all of that can be tied into LDAP or Active Directory, so from an enterprise perspective this becomes the first truly secure tablet that can be used for military purposes, finance, medical — sensitive, compliance-intensive uses.

Do you see Ubuntu OS tablets creeping into the enterprise through the BYOD route, or do you envisage companies rolling out a fleet of them?

Either/or: there are some good reasons why enterprises would choose this. For security, malware on Android is a real problem and this is a much cleaner environment. I can [also] see why consumers might choose it too, what we've done is really quite beautiful from the consumer point of view.

What did you have to drop, that you really didn't want to, or plan to re-introduce?

That's an interesting question. We had to drop lots of good ideas, and that's the thing with design — you're constantly having good ideas. We had to say, okay, of each idea, where does it stack on the priority list, how useful is it, is it important enough an idea that might land only on the PC interface, like a delta between them. Is it an idea we can find an expression of in the different form factors?

So when will I be able to get my hands on an Ubuntu phone or tablet?

I think phones in January, tablets in April [2014]. This is the developer version right now, you can't really use it as your every day driver, but in a couple of weeks you'll be able to.

You only released it a few days ago, though.

We released it for the four Nexus devices and now we have 20 work-in-progress ports from the community already, and some of them are to older devices.

Do you know how many people downloaded it?

I know that in the first six hours we have 75,000 hits on the download, which is pretty cool.

We've got a lot of work to do but we've got some great partners kicking in and the team is really motivated. We have a chance to profoundly change the historical balance of Linux as a follower of PCs. This is better than Windows 8 as an experience, that's not a crazy thing to say, serious people in industry are saying 'that's better than Windows 8' [on tablets].

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