Canonical promises Ubuntu smartphones in 2014

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Canonical, which makes a Linux-based computer operating system called Ubuntu, announced it will release versions of Ubuntu for low- and high-end smartphones, and the company said it expects phones running the platform to be commercially available sometime next year.

Ubuntu joins an already intensely crowded market for smartphone operating systems that includes Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android, Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone, Tizen, the Firefox mobile OS, Jolla's Sailfish, Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry 10 and other platforms.

"This is obviously a very hotly contested segment," explained Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and vice president of products at Canonical, in a conference call with reporters announcing the company's plans. "We have had a series of private conversations with key members of the (wireless) industry, both with mobile operators and OEMs. … We do have ample evidence of a high level of interest in a fresh face at the table."

Shuttleworth argued that there is room in the market for another player, and he said the approach Canonical is taking with Ubuntu for phones will set it apart in the market. Specifically, Shuttleworth explained that Ubuntu for phones is essentially the same version of the Linux-based OS that Canonical offers for desktop and laptop computers, tablets and TVs. "We think that our vision, which is so powerfully convergent, is somewhat unique," he explained.

A key selling point of Ubuntu for phones is that the high-end version will allow users to plug their phone into a PC and run the full desktop version of Ubuntu.

Perhaps more importantly, Shuttleworth said that a number of computer makers and wireless carriers have already evaluated Ubuntu for phones and have expressed interest in building products using the platform. Indeed, PC OEMs including Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo all sell Ubuntu-powered computers; Canonical  said there are currently over 20 million desktop PCs running the OS today, and that in 2014 it expects that close to 10 percent of the world's new desktops and laptops will ship with Ubuntu.

Further, Canonical has already put its toe into the mobile waters. The company in 2011 released its "Ubuntu for Android" product for handset makers. When installed into Android phones, the product allows users to connect their phone to a computer to run a full Ubuntu system. Shuttleworth said that at least one major smartphone maker plans to sell a phone with Canonical's "Ubuntu for Android" in 2013, though he declinded to name the vendor.

As for Canonical's new Ubuntu for phones platform, the operating system appears to be a mix between RIM's BlackBerry 10 and the webOS platform from Palm. Ubuntu for phones allows users to navigate through the platform by swiping from one side of their screen to another: swiping from the left brings up a list of favorite apps, swiping from the right navigates to the most recently used app and swiping from the bottom brings up each app's menu.

For handset makers, Canonical said its Ubuntu for phones can run on Intel- or ARM-based chipsets, and the company said the platform relies on the Android Board Support Package, which Canonical said will allow Android smartphone makers to easily install Ubuntu into their products with a "trivial" amount of work. For wireless carriers, Canonical said that "operators have room to enhance Ubuntu with their own services, content, apps and branding without breaking compatibility with the broader Ubuntu app ecosystem." And for developers, Canonical said Ubuntu for phones supports HTML5 apps as well as native Linux apps.

"We are very respectful of the challenges we face," noted Shuttleworth, adding: "We've seen phenominal interest in this."

Shuttleworth said that Firefox's mobile OS, Tizen and Android represent the most direct competition for Ubuntu for phones, since each of those platforms are offered for free to handset makers. Already Samsung has promised to release Tizen phones in 2013, and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) has said it will support Tizen and Mozilla's Firefox mobile OS. 

For more:
- see this release
- see this Unwired View article
- see this Engadget article
- see this Verge article

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