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Ubuntu focuses on mobile devices

November 2, 2011

This article was contributed by Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier.

As has become traditional, Mark Shuttleworth kicked off the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) with a keynote (video link) looking back at the last release cycle and looking ahead to the next release. Following the keynote, Shuttleworth jumped on a conference call to share his vision for Ubuntu's next release and beyond. The long story short? Expect more of an emphasis on mobile and cloud, and less on the legacy desktop.

Canonical and the rest of the Ubuntu project is now starting the development cycle for Ubuntu 12.04, which will be a Long Term Support (LTS) release. This time around, Canonical is planning to do a five-year cycle for the client and server release. Shuttleworth said that this is in response from customers who have large Ubuntu deployments, though he didn't specify which ones.

Shuttleworth said that 12.04 will "draw to conclusion" the "threads" that started since the last LTS release. For example, solidifying the Unity desktop and work on the cloud services in Ubuntu. At the same time, Shuttleworth is already looking forward to the 14.04 LTS and putting Ubuntu on tablets, phones, televisions, and other mobile and embedded devices. Ubuntu has been focusing on touch interfaces for some time, but now Shuttleworth said that Ubuntu "is in a position" to span "from phone to televisions, to car, and elsewhere."

That's quite an ambitious perspective, especially considering two things. First, Ubuntu is a little bit late to the game. Giants like Microsoft, Google, and Apple have already been jockeying for position for years. Android and iOS have already carved out a pretty enormous swath of the tablet and phone markets, and word around the campfire is that Apple is poised to release a TV in the not-too-distant future. By the time Ubuntu 14.04 rolls around, or even 13.04 with preview technology for mobile, other companies will be well into their Nth generation of technology in markets Canonical will just be dipping a toe into.

The second is that Canonical is a really tiny David in this David and Goliath story. On one side, Canonical faces the aforementioned industry giants. On the other hand, Canonical is also competing with industry consortia like Tizen.

Essentially, Canonical seems to be facing an uphill battle similar to that the company faced when it attempted to take on the desktop against Microsoft and Apple. Currently, Shuttleworth boasts 20 million users for Ubuntu. Leaving aside the fact that Canonical doesn't actually publish the information used to gather those numbers, 20 million users have not been enough to qualify as mainstream success on the desktop. Now the company is planning to enter markets where it's completely unknown and years late.

So I asked Shuttleworth why he thinks that Canonical will be poised to compete here? First, he acknowledged that Ubuntu would be late to market. However, he said that this market is a bit different. First, it's a highly contested market with no clear winner. Shuttleworth said that there is the potential for "dramatic shifts" in the market, and that has been the case in the past with the arrival of Android. He also said that there's potential backlash to Google picking up Motorola Mobility. The "Googlerola" deal might change the way that companies feel about Android, Shuttleworth said — which provides an opening to Canonical.

Tizen will not satisfy the need, Shuttleworth said, because consortia have "an inability to deliver a focused, concrete" solution. This point is rather hard to argue, given the string of failures (i.e. Moblin, Maemo, MeeGo) thus far. So Shuttleworth said vendors "have me on the phone to ask how quickly we can bring a mobile story with Ubuntu." Canonical has declined to identify particular vendors until there are products ready to go to market. That may take a while; if not as late as 2014 certainly not in 2011 and likely not in 2012.

Without products to hack on, how will developers be testing their applications, assuming interested developers want to get the next Angry Birds (or the current one) put together for Ubuntu on mobile? Shuttleworth said that in the interim Ubuntu will target existing hardware that ship with different OSes. "We'll target existing hardware that's available around the world, cheaply."

Developers can use HTML5 or QML to target Ubuntu for mobile, said Shuttleworth. For multi-platform, low-resource applications, HTML5 should be fine, he said, and Canonical will "make sure that HTML5 apps work beautifully on all devices." For games and native applications, Shuttleworth said that developers can have a "smoother" experience targeting Ubuntu using QML.

One key criticism of tablets, in particular, from the open source community is that they're essentially for consuming media — not for creating content or hacking. I asked Shuttleworth if Canonical had any plans to address this with Ubuntu's tablet releases. Unfortunately, Shuttleworth said that the 1.0 release will also be primarily focused on standard tablet behavior (consuming content), but of course an Ubuntu tablet will have a wide range of applications.

One potential snag is how Canonical is going to turn a profit on its mobile work when any vendor could just pick up Ubuntu and put it on its own devices without Canonical's blessing. Shuttleworth said that Android has shown that path to be "ultimately destructive" when vendors choose to go their own way. He didn't explain this in detail, but there are few Android success stories from vendors that are not partnered with Google. The notable exceptions are Barnes & Noble, which seems to be doing quite well with the Android-based Color Nook, and Amazon. While Amazon hasn't yet shipped the Android-based Kindle Fire, it seems to have been well received initially. Nevertheless, Shuttleworth said he's "confident" that many of the ISVs will want an engagement with Canonical for services, which will be one revenue stream.

The Ubuntu One framework and its services will provide another income stream, he said. Shuttleworth envisions devices shipping with Ubuntu and Ubuntu One services, which Canonical will generate revenue from. This may wind up being successful — during the UDS keynote, Shuttleworth mentioned that of 110,000 new users to Ubuntu One, 25,000 had never used Ubuntu before.

For the next Ubuntu release, then, expect the feature set to be fairly conservative. Canonical will be focusing on polishing Unity and improving the integration of OpenStack and the new cloud management software (Juju) that was introduced with 11.10. Unfortunately, this topic was not really discussed during the press call with Shuttleworth and my attempt to connect with the right person at Canonical on server plans was hampered by the ongoing UDS.

Shuttleworth and Canonical are taking on a steep challenge with the play for phones, tablets, and other devices. It's interesting that Shuttleworth spent little time talking up Ubuntu's strategy as an operating system of choice for cloud infrastructure, especially given the work that the Ubuntu folks put into Ubuntu's cloud tools in the 11.10 release. Perhaps Canonical has learned enough from attempts at desktop success to make a go on the next wave of devices for personal computing. It will certainly be interesting to watch.

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