Ubuntu, one of the most popular versions of the Linux open source operating system, is set to arrive on smartphones by the end of the year.
Today, Canonical — the company that develops Ubuntu — announced partnerships with Spanish hardware designer bq and the Chinese mobile device company Meizu, saying that both would introduce phones over the next 10 months. The news is part of wider movement towards Linux phones across the world and particularly in Asia, where the open source OS can feed the enormous market for inexpensive devices.
To date, this movement has largely been driven by Android, the Google operating system based on Linux. But like many others, Canonical and its charismatic founder, Mark Shuttleworth, are determined to provide an alternative to Android, a platform that is, in many ways, tightly controlled by Google.
In announcing its deals with bg and Meizu, Canonical also said it has formed an advisory group for the fledgling Ubuntu smartphone market, roping in 16 mobile companies, including major wireless carriers Verizon, T-Mobile, and Vodaphone. None of these companies have publicly committed to their own Ubuntu phones, but Shuttleworth says that Canonical will introduce more hardware partners in 2015, and that more information related to the Ubuntu smartphone market will be revealed later this month at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.
Last month, many news outlets reported that no Ubuntu phones would ship until 2015, citing a question and answer session with Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon that appeared on the popular online discussion site reddit. But it seems that Bacon was merely saying that the big-name handset makers and wireless carriers wouldn’t embrace the OS until next year.
Shuttleworth says that Canonical has decided to postpone relationships with better-known manufacturers so it can concentrate on more “tactical” partners that he believes will help the company break into the mobile market quicker. “We thought it would be better for us to have partners for whom we would be a very significant part of their story in 2014 — rather than to be appended to the rather complicated stories from some other brands,” Shuttleworth says.
But even with more nimble launch partners, Canonical has a tough road ahead as it seeks to fashion a more open alternative to Android. Others are trying to do the same thing.
Although the code behind the Android operating system is open source, many of its core tools — such as the Play store where you purchase applications — are proprietary creations that require a license to redistribute, and vendors must play by Google’s rules to get licenses. With Ubuntu, Canoncial hopes to provide an operating system that allows for more experimentation than Android as well as Apple’s iOS. But you’ll hear much the same pitch from other big names. Mozilla has its FirefoxOS, Samsung has its Tizen operating system, and some developers have even gone so far as to create new versions of Android that don’t include Google’s proprietary software.
The question is whether any of these OSes can succeed in an already crowded market. Last year, Canonical launched a fundraising campaign for its own phone, called the Edge, and the company raised nearly $13 million, breaking crowdfunding records. But it still fell well short of its lofty $32 million goal.
Canonical believes it has an advantage over competitors because the same Ubuntu OS runs atop PCs as well as smartphones and tablets, letting people run the same applications across all devices. Shuttleworth says this could lead to a world where people carry a phone that also serves as a tablet and PC, snapping into hardware that transforms it into these larger devices.
But, as Shuttleworth points out, other outfits are also moving in this direction. Google is working on something called Project Ara, an experimental project that began at Motorola, and many companies — including Microsoft — are already offering “convertible” tablets that transform into laptops
One concern is that its focus on mobile consumers could diminish Canonical’s core business, which is based on Linux software that runs computer servers and cloud services. But Shuttleworth says the code bases for server and mobile are similar enough that there’s little duplication of effort, and the company’s existing customers provide a potential market for mobiles. The hope is that the same people who use Ubuntu on servers and in the cloud will want it on mobile phones. That may or may not happen. But one thing’s for sure: Mobile Linux is everywhere.