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Canonical's Ubuntu Linux is coming soon to a smartphone near you—and this time that's not just a vague promise. The company has revealed when and how Ubuntu phones and tablets will arrive, with the announcement Feb. 19 of a partnership with two international hardware manufacturers to build open source Ubuntu phones.
February 20, 2014
Canonical‘s Ubuntu Linux is coming soon to a smartphone near you—and this time that’s not just a vague promise. The company has revealed when and how Ubuntu phones and tablets will arrive, with the announcement Feb. 19 of a partnership with two international hardware manufacturers to build open source Ubuntu phones.
Canonical launched its mobile initiative about a year ago. But despite having grown a partner ecosystem of 16 mobile carriers who signed on to the company’s Carrier Advisory Group, as well as an impassioned but ill-fated campaign last summer to crowdfund a custom-designed phone called the Ubuntu edge, Ubuntu developers have previously provided little in the way of specific details on how and when an Ubuntu phone would arrive in the flesh.
That changed Feb. 19, when Canonical founder (and former CEO, although the “former” qualifier seems to have little meaning) Mark Shuttleworth announced that the company has forged partnerships with mobile device manufacturers bq and Meizu, who will manufacture phones with Ubuntu pre-installed. Canonical is excited about working with them, Shuttleworth said in a meeting with reporters, because both are “challengers who have successful track records of breaking into entrenched markets.”
Shuttleworth added that Canonical and its partners won’t announce exactly which phone models will run Ubuntu, or their hardware specifications, until they showcase them at the upcoming Mobile World Congress. He did, however, make clear that the manufacturers will put Ubuntu on a phone that “is part of their existing hardware roadmap,” rather than inventing a new one from scratch just for Ubuntu.
Nor will Canonical do much rewriting of the Ubuntu code to make the operating system work on these devices. “By the time these things are all happily in production,” he said, the codebase for Ubuntu phones will have “converged 100 percent” with the code for other versions of Ubuntu.
Without a doubt, Canonical faces a weighty challenge in trying to break into the mobile market. But Shuttleworth said he is confident the company can do it by playing to several strengths. First, he said, “the market position we seek is to be the open alternative to Android.” By that he meant that, although Android is also a nominally open source platform, many parties perceive it as a “locked down” mobile OS. In contrast, Ubuntu for phones will be as fully open as Ubuntu for everything else, and as fully integrated in the broader open source ecosystem.
Shuttleworth also emphasized the value of a solution such as this to enterprises that already use Ubuntu to power their workstations and servers. Now, he said, Canonical will offer them an option that will provide consistency across their mobile infrastructure as well. He mentioned the assurance of data security as an especially important advantage from convergence like this.
Last but not least, Shuttleworth was keen to remind observers that although iOS and Android seem to control such a dominant chunk of the market at present, the mobile world has actually evolved very rapidly, and seen a number of disruptions, over the last two decades. From an historical perspective, he argued, it is difficult to assume that iOS and Android will remain so predominant indefinitely. Canonical wants to be the next disruption.
The channel will soon start seeing whether Canonical will achieve that goal, since Shuttleworth said Ubuntu phones will ship “well within 2014.”
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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