Ubuntu Linux heads to smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs.

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, plans to take on Android, iOS and Windows on the smartphones, tablets and smart TVs.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor


Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical & Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, will announce at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Orlando, FL, that they will be taking Ubuntu Linux to smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs.

In an interview in an advance of the official announcement, Shuttleworth told me, that their short term plans are to make Ubuntu 12.04, the next long term support (LTS) of their Linux distribution, as stable as possible and to give the Unity desktop interface, it's final fit and polish for both home and business Linux desktop users. After that, however, Canonical will be expanding its popular Linux desktop to all computing devices.

Shuttleworth said, "This is a natural expansion of our idea as Ubuntu as Linux for human beings. As people have moved from desktop to new form factors for computing, it's important for us to reach out to out community on these platforms. So, we'll embrace the challenge of how to use Ubuntu on smartphones, tablets and smart-screens."

While Canonical had never said that they were planning on exporting Unity, its GNOME-based desktop, beyond the desktop, I, and others, have long thought that Ubuntu's Unity Linux desktop looked like a natural for tablets. Indeed, when Unity first shipped in the fall of 2010 Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu Community Manager, told me that "all the pieces are in place to create an Ubuntu tablet."

It turns out it wasn't just the technical pieces. Shuttleworth told me that they "had been talking to partners for eighteen months" about bring Ubuntu to smartphones and tablets. That's one reason why, even though some people such as ZDNet's own Jason Perlow are filled with rage over some Unity design elements, such as its unmovable left-hand tool bar, Canonical won't be moving it or, allowing users to easily change it.

Welcome to Ubuntu 11.10 and the look of Ubuntu's future tablet. (Photo Gallery)

Shuttleworth explained, "Unity has a strong design vision and part of that is to provide coherent screens across platforms. While it's not one size fit all a common design is vital to it." Still, "Nothing is cast in stone. Still, since Unity on the desktop is part of a greater whole, we look at the experience as a whole." So, "We want a consistent platform with a tightly structured user experience."

Ubuntu isn't the only one to see a multi-platform interface this way. Microsoft, with its Metro interface, is taking a similar approach in Windows 8. Ubuntu, however, has been shipping its new look interface since last year on desktops

Still, also like Windows 8, you won't be seeing a production version of multi-device Ubuntu anytime soon. Shuttleworth said that he expects a fully-baked and ready to go Ubuntu for all devices will appear in Ubuntu 14.04-April 2014. In the meantime, there's not even alpha code. They're taking their time because they want to get it right. Shuttleworth wouldn't say when the first code would appear.

When it does appear, it will be touch-enabled and available on all the architectures that Ubuntu currently runs on. In particular, though, Shuttleworth sees the "relationship with ARM to be critical." So, while he can't deliver "a product schedule yet, Ubuntu is already working with hardware partners to bring products to market. As progress is made Ubuntu will take the device-specific code, open source it, and roll it into standard Ubuntu."

If I were a betting man, I'd bet we'd see developer tablets and smartphones with ARM processors to appear in the second quarter of 2012. Canonical really wants the LTS version of its Linux to be business ready. After that, though, I expect Ubuntu to focus its energy on other platforms.

You may well ask, "How can Ubuntu expect to grab market-share in a world where Android and Apple's iOS are already so strong?" So, I asked Shuttleworth. He replied, "The device world is highly competitive and highly dynamic, while Android and iOS dominate handheld devices, disruptive elements could still establish themselves." Therefore, "Ubuntu and Windows can still be a real force."

Specifically, Shuttleworth sees "Android as its primary competitor. But, from the industry viewpoint, Google acquisition Of Motorola Mobility has shook up the hardware vendors, so some of them are looking for non-Android alternatives."

Shuttleworth added that Canonical can be very congenial to service partners and independent software vendors (ISV)s. With Ubuntu, "there's plenty of room to share revenue with providers. We've also already heard from people who are already shipping tablets that they want Ubuntu on the tablet." In addition, "Ubuntu already has a developer and customer base."

As for the other alternatives, "OEMs have tough choices. They can build their own operating system, such as what HP did for a while with webOS or work in a consortium, Consortiums [such as the one behind the now effectively defunct MeeGo] can't win. They can't take a forceful, direct view with their products. The smartest OEM strategy is to play people off against each other. Thus, some OEMs want to have Ubuntu as a disruptive element. A strong Ubuntu can be both more co-operative with OEMs than a larger company and give them leverage with Google and Microsoft." Finally, and this is telling, "Ubuntu has shown that we can hit deadlines and innovate. We can deliver a good plan and products."

Frankly, this is a pragmatic plan that I think may well work. What do you think? Do you want Ubuntu on your tablet? Your phone?

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