Ubuntu is coming to phones near the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014, as we reported earlier today. After the announcement, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth spoke to the media about why he thinks Ubuntu will be great on phones and, more specifically, why it will be better than Android.
Somewhat confusingly, Ubuntu has two phone projects. One of them is called "Ubuntu for Android," which allows Android smartphones to act as Ubuntu PCs when docked with a monitor, mouse, and keyboard. The version of Ubuntu for phones announced today is just Ubuntu, no Android required, allowing devices to run Ubuntu in both the phone and PC form factor, with different interfaces optimized for the different screens. Canonical is keeping Ubuntu for Android around, even as it touts its own phone operating system as a better alternative.
The smartphone market is already dominated by iPhone and Android, with RIM losing prominence, Windows Phone making a charge at third place, and various other operating systems aiming for elusive name recognition. So why should carriers and handset makers warm to Ubuntu, and why should anyone buy an Ubuntu phone?
In short, Shuttleworth believes that Ubuntu will be more user-friendly for people who barely know how to use a smartphone, and he says it will offer a more powerful alternative to Android at the high end for several reasons, including Ubuntu's ability to operate across mobile devices and desktops (click hereÂ for more on the design of Ubuntu for phones.) Here are Shuttleworth's comments:
With regard to Android I think we have two strong stories. One is a really crisp user experience that was designed from the beginning with this full vision of convergence in mind. That is something that is really difficult to achieve with Android today. We know many people who have tried to create clamshell devices with Android and there are lots of reasons why they've struggled. We have very high regard for the Android team's capabilities but we have a different vision when it comes to the convergence story.
The feedback we've had from operators and in user testing is that for a crucial portion of the market, which is the [low-end] smartphone market, the users who today just essentially only make calls and send SMS, that Ubuntu offers a much easier and understandable path to grow those users toward using the Web and e-mail on their smartphones. That's very important for operators. At the low end of the market I think we have a real user advantage experience over Android.
At the high end we have the great fortune to be coming to market late, in the sense that Moore's Law has given us at least seven or eight generations of performance improvements since Android came to market and we've been able to take advantage of that. It's the full Linux, it's essentially Unix in your pocket. That means all the security stories that are true of desktop and server Ubuntu are true of the phone, it means the multi-user story is there, it means the application containment story is there, using Linux containers and virtualization. It means the parallelÂ SMP [symmetric multi-processing] multi-core story is there from the beginning. You can do things with Ubuntu devices on the high end that just wouldn't be possible with Android.
Another advantage cited by Shuttleworth is the ability to run "native apps, whereas Android has the overhead of Java."
Shuttleworth spent much less time comparing Ubuntu to other operating systems, focusing on Android because it's the biggest competitor in the open source world and the most widely used smartphone OS, period. RIM and Microsoft are both "potent forces" with a "closed ecosystem," Shuttleworth said.
While there are other open phone operating systems, including Tizen, WebOS, and Firefox OS, Shuttleworth said Ubuntu will be unique in offering convergence across the phone and desktop. Besides users getting a full PC with their phone, developers will be able to submit applications to the Ubuntu Software Centre and have them be distributed to phones and desktops if they're compatible with both.
In addition to native applications, Ubuntu will allow the creation of Web apps that run independently of the browser and have their own access to system services. "For those who want to, we offer facilities for integration of Web apps into the environment that are richer than either Android or iOS and quite possibly even from Firefox OS," Shuttleworth said.
As for games, a very popular category of apps, Shuttleworth noted, "We have the great advantage that some of the significant game publishersÂ have started to target Ubuntu in the past year, most notably Valve with Steam and also Unity, which is a game framework popular in the mobile world."
It's not Ubuntu for Android, but that's still a thing too
To be clear, Ubuntu for Android isn't going away, even though Canonical now has its own phone OS that doesn't use Android. "Ubuntu for Android" devices may even ship earlier than what we'll call pure Ubuntu phones for the sake of clarity.Â To add a bit more confusion, the earliest prototype of the pure Ubuntu for phones will be released as an image that can be installed instead of Android on a Galaxy Nexus device. But it's definitely not Ubuntu for Android. Got that?
Since both exist, and since Ubuntu for Android might hit store shelves first,Â Â Shuttleworth hopes it will pave the way for consumer acceptance of phone/PC hybrids.
"We're very excited about Ubuntu for Android. It continues to be a project we invest in," Shuttleworth said. "We have conversations [with hardware partners] that are bearing fruit. It's been a long and slow process, because it's essentially a category that doesn't exist today."
On another topic, Shuttleworth was asked how Ubuntu can avoid Android-like fragmentation that forces developers to make apps that target many different versions of Android and different hardware form factors.
While Ubuntu and Android are both open source, Ubuntu's development process happens much more publicly than Android's. Whether that makes controlling the ecosystem harder remains to be seen, but Shuttleworth expressed confidence.
"I think we have a good track record in Ubuntu of being open to participation from partners, competitors, community members," he said. "We'll also be quite opinionated about what constitutes an Ubuntu phone and we will do that so we can deliver security updates without breaking a user's device."
Shuttleworth also said Canonical has a plan for avoiding problems related to phones having wildly different form factors and screen sizes. He didn't provide much detail on what that plan is, but he said, "We will gracefully handle diversity and enable customization of brand and service and app frameworks in a way that is non-destructive to what developers want, which is an addressable market that keeps growing, rather than an addressable market that keeps getting more complicated."
If Android is "an addressable market that keeps getting more complicated," will developers flee to Ubuntu? That's a question we're a long way away from being able to answer, since the first step is getting carriers and hardware makers to make compatible devices in the first place.
Canonical's secret sauce in selling carriers on Ubuntu might lie in helping them sell their own services to end users. Carriers "care about brand and we know how to accommodate that," Shuttleworth said. "They care about their own content and we've essentially put their content on an equal footing with content from the ecosystem. The handset manufacturer or operator that has music, films, or other types of content can promote their content to their users or other users directly in a way that doesn't feel like a bolt-on or a sideshow."
Services offered by carriers and phone makers are usually just a waste of space at best. Whether good or not, they will be there on Ubuntu phones.
So who will sell them? Shuttleworth can't say yet, but he wants everyone to know that Canonical's secret talks with manufacturers are going well.
"We have in the last three months brought up the Ubuntu phone experience on a variety of devices and in all cases that was a crisp, clean and short process which really delighted both the silicon partners and handset manufacturers," he said. "That makes things easier for people who have existing Android phones in development to think about whether they want to put Ubuntu in certain markets or to reach certain audiences."
Canonical isn't stopping at phones. There will be Ubuntu tablets, too. But phones seem to be Canonical's top mobile priority, or at least the one that is the furthest along. "We think we can hold our own in what is going to be a very vibrant market," Shuttleworth said.