Ubuntu jumps to tablets in a long-term bet on mobile convergence

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 19, 2013

From The News Desk

Ubuntu is coming to tablets. The Linux-based operating system developed by Canonical is making the jump from the desktop to mobile and television sets, and the company today revealed that, naturally, tablets will be a part of that transition.

Developers and others willing to tinker with unfinished operating systems will be able to install the mobile version of Ubuntu on the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets, or the Nexus 4 and Galaxy Nexus smartphones, starting on Thursday, February 21. That’s long before the projected release date for the first Ubuntu-powered devices, which Canonical hopes to see released in 2014, but the company is just fine with that.

“We come from a very deep legacy, and successfully establishing the [Ubuntu] operating system for desktops and TVs and, more recently, phones,” says Richard Collins, the head of Ubuntu Mobile Products.

Canonical is counting on that device-agnostic legacy to propel Ubuntu’s future, which is why the company is okay with entering the mobile market years after iOS, Android, or, depending on Ubuntu for mobile’s release date, even BlackBerry 10. Because devices are starting to converge, Collins says, Ubuntu thinks that there’s an opportunity for Ubuntu to become a major player in the battle for mobile and the living room by 2016.

"That's a pretty ambitious target for anyone coming into the industry, but we've done our research and we've had the conversations that let us know that there's a space for us,” Collins says. That’s partly why Canonical is so late to mobile. The company wanted to work on its PC business first, forming partnerships with companies like Dell, HP, Asus, and Acer to allow Ubuntu to reach more customers.

April 2014. That’s the month Canonical plans to present a unified Ubuntu and have a presence in desktop and mobile. This is in keeping with the company’s six-month release cycle for updates to Ubuntu on the PC, and Collins says that Canonical plans to keep this pace up once Ubuntu has made it to other devices.

Releasing an update every six months is much faster than the one-year cycle of iOS, OS X, Windows, and, to an extent, Android. (It laps the previous release cycle for Windows, but Microsoft is reportedly gearing up to release annual updates with “Windows Blue.”) This rapid iteration, which Collins says makes Ubuntu’s development “evolutionary” and “organic,” will be key to bridging the gap between Canonical and established competitors.

Collins spoke to Canonical’s other advantages over competitors, such as its focus on software (to the exclusion of hardware development) and its decision to build Ubuntu for the desktop and mobile devices as a single operating system. Canonical doesn’t have to worry about managing multiple operating systems, as both Microsoft and Apple do, and doesn’t have the burden of legacy that comes part and parcel with other operating systems.

Will this be enough? That’s the question everyone wants answered, and the answer is essentially “you’ll have to wait and see.” Where other companies — and the tech press — are focused on operating systems six months, one year, or two years out, Canonical is thinking on a longer timeline. Ubuntu isn’t going to dominate mobile overnight. Hell, the operating system is barely a blip on the desktop, and that version of the software has been available for almost nine years.

There’s much about Ubuntu mobile to get excited about. I can’t wait to get my hands on the mobile operating system, early development status be damned, and the gesture-driven interface represents a large departure from the widget-and-icon interface sported by iOS and Android. But this is the excitement of using something shiny and new, not the excitement of another company announcing its plans to take on incumbent players in the mobile market in the short-term.

Now the question is whether or not the mobile market has the same patience as Canonical.