Anticipating a growing market for smart television sets, Canonical will be demonstrating a version of its popular Ubuntu Linux OS that can be used for running TVs.
The company is displaying a prototype unit, called the Ubuntu TV, at the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas.
"It's an operating system and experience for your television," said Canonical CEO Jane Silber. The company is hoping television manufacturers will adopt Ubuntu as a base for their own smart television sets. "We're focusing on making the TV intuitive and usable again, with a single, elegant interface."
The global market for smart televisions is expected to balloon, reaching US$265 billion by 2016, up from $64 million in 2011, estimates the MarketsandMarkets research firm. A smart TV is one that can not only show cable and over-the-air television shows, but, thanks to some built-in computational ability, also offer a user interface to allow viewers to pull video from the Internet, run applications and peruse channel guides more easily.
Although Canonical originally designed Ubuntu as a Linux-based OS for desktop and laptop computers and servers, the company's plans to court television manufacturers such as Sony and LG is part of a broader strategy to offer Ubuntu for a wide range of processor-embedded consumer devices, including automobiles, tablets and various household appliances.
Ubuntu TV "is a first proof point on a broader device strategy," Silber said.
For Ubuntu TV, Canonical wants to partner with television manufacturers; it has no intention to build its own television. It is in talks with several manufacturers, and it is also in the early stages of conversations with content providers as well.
While a relatively new player in the space of embedded OSes, Canonical offers a lot of advantages to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), Silber argued. Canonical is a "neutral party" and doesn't tie its platform to content offerings, allowing manufacturers to develop their own offerings and forge their own revenue-sharing partnerships, Silber said.
"For manufacturers that post-sale service revenue is an important piece," Silber said.
Ubuntu could be advantageous for a number of other reasons as well. It is an open platform, which will allow manufacturers to participate in the development process. Also, the OS, thanks to its large installed user base, already has many developers who are familiar with the platform. "That ecosystem is something manufacturers need along with a platform," Silber said.
Canonical will offer a base version of Ubuntu TV, although manufacturers will be free to alter the software to meet their own hardware specifications, allowing them to adjust the OS for their own choices in CPU, memory, screen-size, storage space, input devices and other factors.
When turned on, an Ubuntu TV would offer a searchable channel guide of what could be watched by cable or over the airwaves. The TV could host applications, such as those offering pay-per-view content. The OS could also show user's own video, from the cloud or from a networked computer in the same house. It does not, however, include a browser. Silber expected that users would browse with a handheld device, such as a tablet or a smartphone.
"It looks like Ubuntu. It has the Unity interface," Silber said.
Ubuntu is facing serious competition. Also at CES, Lenovo launched its first smart TV, a unit based on Google's Android OS that can recognize voice commands and work as a karaoke machine. Last week, Google announced that it had partnered with Samsung, LG and Sony to bring the second generation of its Google TV to more devices.
And while Apple has made no formal announcement yet, industry observers are expecting the company to launch an integrated television set as soon as this year, one that could possibly command the market for smart televisions in much the same way its iPods quickly dominated the market for digital music players.
Even with Apple's impending entry, Silber is confident that Canonical can carve out a space for Ubuntu. "Apple is a single solution, and manufacturers and content owners are much more wary now of Apple's walled garden approach. People we talk with are very confident there is a market for non-Apple players, and that the ecosystem needs that neutral platform," Silber said. "And I think Ubuntu is the best fit there."