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Canonical to expand Ubuntu for smartphones, tablets

The Unity interface will provide a common platform for running Ubuntu across multiple form factors

Canonical plans to expand its Ubuntu Linux distribution so it could be used on smartphones, tablets and other touch interface consumer electronics, said Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth.

"Everyday computer users are starting to do their computing across a broader array of devices and form factors," Shuttleworth said. Canonical wants to "bring Ubuntu to all the personal computing form factors, on phones, tablets, and smart-screens."

Shuttleworth will introduce his plans Monday at the Ubuntu Developer Summit, being held this week in Orlando. At this conference, he is hoping to raise enthusiasm on the part of volunteer developers, who Canonical will need to help develop the platform and provide applications for the expanded OS.

"An application for Ubuntu in the future will have multiple personalities. When it is running on a desktop computer, it will have a different personality from when it is running on a tablet," Shuttleworth said. "From a developer point of view, there will be a phenomenal amount of coherency and reuse of the core capabilities on the application."

Canonical faces some stiff competition in tablet and smartphone markets, even beyond Apple's current dominance in these arenas. Google's Android smartphone OS, also based on Linux, runs almost 40 percent of the smartphones in the U.S., according to the latest ComScore survey. For tablets, Android hasn't been widely adopted yet, though Microsoft could very well make major inroads with its upcoming release of the tablet-friendly Windows 8 OS.

For developers and users, Ubuntu can provide a number of advantages over more established choices, Shuttleworth argued. Unlike Google, which is acquiring handset manufacturer Motorola, Canonical has no plans to offer its own smartphones, so presumably would be a more neutral party to hardware manufacturers. Shuttleworth also promises a more uniform update process through its Ubuntu One service, thereby potentially reducing the fragmentation and uneven update process that has bedeviled Android to date.

Ubuntu could also provide a unified code base, Shuttleworth argued. A developer can write an application for Ubuntu and have it run, with only minimal modification, on smartphones, tablets and desktop computers.

Canonical has been making moves in preparing Ubuntu for this move for some time, Shuttleworth said. The company's controversial move to the Unity interface was done, in part, because Unity would be better suited to work across different platforms.

"The basic design of Unity puts us in a good position to build a coherent family of interfaces. The basic structure of Unity will be able to reach all of those form factors, retaining some coherence for users, and respecting the unique characteristics of these form factors," Shuttleworth said.

The company also developed a version of Ubuntu to run on Arm processors, a base that will be essential for running Arm-based devices.

Canonical has not established a roadmap of specific release dates for the software, but hopes to have device-ready releases of the new OS editions by 2014. Much of the work on the touch interface has already been completed, and the company is hoping that developers at the conference will identify the work that remains to be done. As recently as April, Shuttleworth expressed little interest in the growing tablet market, preferring instead to prep Ubuntu for netbook computers, in addition to the company's standard desktop and server editions.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is [email protected]


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