Mark Shuttleworth: Why Ubuntu mobile really matters

A smartphone that can work as a desktop may be a long shot but the pursuit of mobile technology has brought many benefits to Ubuntu, according to Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor
Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth: We had this vision some time ago for lining up your phone and tablet and PC experiences so that they could be a single device. People thought that was nuts.
Image: Canonical

As a major Chinese manufacturer launches a new Ubuntu-based smartphone that's also bound for Europe, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth this week conceded that the odds are stacked against the Linux-based OS succeeding in the role of phone-cum-desktop PC.

On Monday, the Chinese firm Meizu, backed by China Mobile, released the Ubuntu MX4 smartphone to developers in China, with a European launch planned for the near future.

The first Ubuntu phone, the Aquaris E4.5, made by Canonical partner bq, a Spanish electronics retailer, went on sale online in Europe in February.

Shuttleworth said it was important that Ubuntu remains relevant as people shift to using multiple devices for personal computing.

"We had this vision some time ago for lining up your phone and tablet and PC experiences so that they could be a single device," Shuttleworth said

"People thought that was nuts. But Microsoft's saying the same thing - maybe not so nuts, after all? Our implementation of that is quite a bit more elegant than Windows 8, so we'll see."

Earlier this month, Shuttleworth said an Ubuntu smartphone that can work as a desktop will launch in 2015. It is an idea he pursued unsuccessfully in 2013 with the Edge. Microsoft recently unveiled the Continuum feature at the BUILD conference, which changes the Windows Phone interface to allow handsets to be used as PCs when connected to a monitor.

But Shuttleworth, who founded Canonical in 2004, said Ubuntu's role as a mobile operating system is yielding benefits that go well beyond smartphones.

"The interplay between these things is really rich and really interesting. I understand why people say, 'It's kind of crazy - what are you doing, making a phone?'. But look at all the amazing things that have come from it," he said.

"If you take the GUI out of that phone experience, what did we have to do? We have to get that small to fit on a phone. We had to get it secure, we had to isolate applications from each other and we had to make it possible to update first time, every time remotely, without any kind of management software.

"All of those underpinnings are now our IoT [Internet of Things] platform as well. The latest greatest switch is running Ubuntu. What is it? It's our mobile operating system without the phone UI but it's got all the same properties."

Effectively, the development of Ubuntu as a mobile OS has helped Canonical gain a foothold in the internet of things.

"We're in IoT in a way we never could have been. We don't have the economics for it, or the tools for it, or the developer engagement for it, or the mindset for it. There we are. All we had to do was take the GUI out of it. It's beautiful," Shuttleworth said.

"We've got robots with snappy Ubuntu, we've got switches with Snappy Ubuntu, we've got cars that are going to be shipping with Snappy Ubuntu. All that is our mobile platform, just without the GUI. We could never have predicted that four years ago."

He said the internet of things is interesting because it will bring as much intelligence to, say, a wall-mounted domestic phone as there is in a smartphone, together with applications and the intelligence to make real decisions about its environment.

"While IoT is kind of industrial and not as personal, it's going to be a really good business. We're delighted that we're being pulled onto switches. We're not a switch OS - that magic is being handled by professionals. But we're a great general platform," he said.

Shuttleworth said the adoption of Ubuntu by Meizu represents the easiest way for the Chinese company to break out of China because Google restricts how Android can be used by manufacturers outside China.

"Those developers have worked their heart out. They shipped a phone. China Mobile, Meizu - they're keen to ship that phone in China. Why on earth would I say no? Give them room to run and see what they do."

More on mobile and IoT

Editorial standards