Shuttleworth's one device: The smartphone is the tablet and the PC

Forget post-PC. Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth envisions a future where the smartphone is the brain of your tablet as well as your laptop and even your TV set, all connected to the cloud.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

One device, one cloud. Let's get together and feel all right.

It sounds very Bob Marley, but that is exactly what Canonical's South African CEO, Mark Shuttleworth, is suggesting will be the future of computing.


In a video posted to YouTube this week, a very Bono-like Shuttleworth, channelling his inner Jony Ive and Steve Jobs, spoke at length about the mobile version of the company's open-source and Linux-based operating system, Ubuntu for tablets. The OS will be entering a preview release shortly that will be installable on selected Android hardware, such as Google's Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets and Galaxy Nexus phone.

The mobile version of Ubuntu has spent a long time in gestation. Canonical is entering the tablet and smartphone market five years after industry leaders Apple, Google, Microsoft and BlackBerry all carved out their respective chunks of the consumer and enterprise pie for mobile operating system mindshare.

Of course, we're talking about a very dynamic and volatile industry, where anyone coming up with a better idea can disrupt the marketplace. It's also a market where the existing players aren't sitting still, and are constantly improving their software and continuing to battle for better market position.

The future of mobile computing is absolutely not set in stone. I really have no idea how well the mobile version of Ubuntu will be received, whether OEMs will choose to create product offerings out of it, or developers will dedicate time to porting applications to it.

I don't want to make any predictions about Ubuntu for tablets, if only because I work for a company that is itself jostling for mobile position in the tablet and smartphone space, and it would be improper and unethical for someone who has a captive audience on a major technology content site to make forward-looking statements about competitors.

However, it is what Shuttleworth said toward the end of this video that I found most compelling, and I think what he speaks about in general can be considered in a platform-agnostic form as being very prescient about the future state of mobile and desktop computing.

Whether you are an adherent to developing for or using Apple, Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry or Canonical's mobile operating systems, I believe the concepts he is talking about to be fundamentally universal.

Specifically, I am referring to the fact that Shuttleworth believes that the smartphone of the future will be the single device at the center of the end-user's universe. In summary, it will act as a "brain" for the tablet, laptop, and even TV sets, which will simply be just modular display and peripheral extensions of the handheld device.

In the future, according to the video, smartphones will contain the CPU, storage, and wireless connectivity "core" of the user experience, running on a unified mobile operating system — in this case, Ubuntu running on the ARM architecture.

Instead of carrying three devices — a smartphone, tablet, and laptop, all of which would have discrete storage and memory, and would have to be independently managed — the user would just carry the smartphone and have attachable modules, such as a tablet screen, a large high-definition display, a detachable keyboard and wireless human interface devices that the smartphone would plug into or communicate with.

What he described is going even further than Steve Jobs' "Post-PC" concept, and into what I would call Unified Computing, for lack of a better term.

Of course, what Shuttleworth does not talk about in this brief video describing the benefits of Ubuntu for tablets is the back-end public and private cloud infrastructure that this mobile OS would need to leverage in order to run the most demanding sorts of applications, via web APIs and desktop as a service (DaaS). But this is implied.

Over the years, I have talked at length about cloud-based remote computing, and what shape and form the end-point devices might have. I've used the term "The Screen" to refer to a SoC-based thin client that would be a hybrid of localized processing of mobile apps in combination with desktop apps running remotely in the datacenter.

I have also written some highly speculative things about what I thought computing would be like in the third decade of the 21st century. The reality is that many of these things are closer to reality than I thought, whereas other things are still much further away.

Today, "The Screen" already exists as discrete computing devices such as smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes (Apple TV, etc) and even thin clients like Chromebooks. In the future, perhaps some five or ten years from now, that distinction between form factors may not even exist.

For Shuttleworth's vision to become a reality, you need platform unification. In other words, the smartphone, tablet, and desktop OS need to become the same operating system and developer target. Clearly, this is what Canonical is doing with Ubuntu, based on the video above.

Microsoft has also been doing this with its modern Windows UI that has initially been rolled out in Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets as the WinRT API set, or the Windows Runtime. Windows Phone 8, for the time being, while different to the Windows Runtime, has similar, but also overlapping, development APIs.

While I cannot comment on Microsoft's platform strategy over the long term, any armchair observer of this industry would have to notice the unification of major pieces of the basic core operating system on all the major Windows platforms. Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 all run on the same kernel and core today.

Apple has clearly invested a lot of time in developing iOS into a very big developer ecosystem. How and when the company will approach platform unification and convergence is anyone's guess, but it is almost certain that it is coming.

And Google? The company is currently developing two different operating systems for smartphones, tablets, and laptops — Android and Chrome OS. But I think it's safe to say that platform convergence is coming sooner rather than later.

Is Shuttleworth's vision of platform unification and smartphone as center of the user experience a hallucination, or the future of personal computing? Talk back and let me know.

Editorial standards