South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth is planning to bring his Ubuntu operating system (OS) to smartphones, allowing the little devices to work as fully functional Ubuntu desktops when docked and connected to a monitor and keyboard.
Shuttleworth, known since April 2002 as Africa's first space tourist, is the founder and former chief executive officer of Canonical, a London-based open-source software developer with offices in seven countries including China and Taiwan, although it operates in over 30 countries.
He started development of Ubuntu after he "came back down to earth", and released the first version in October 2004.
Canonical unveiled its latest project at the Consumer Electronics Fair in Los Angeles earlier this month. A Google Nexus device running Ubuntu Phone, as it is known, was showcased at the event.
Following the announcement in January 2012 of the OS's adaptation to smart televisions, this latest development, revealed exactly a year later, means that users need just one OS for their mobile, computing and viewing devices.
According to the company, the OS will work on entry level phones as well as more powerful devices – these are its two core targets and will give operators an opportunity to grow the use of mobile data among customers who before might have only used their phones for calls and messages.
More powerful dual-core phones will be able to run Android when used as a phone, and Ubuntu when docked.
Going mobile in 2013
"2013 will be all about mobile – bringing Ubuntu to phones and tablets," wrote Shuttleworth on his blog, "and broadening the Ubuntu community to include mobile developers who need new tools and frameworks to create mobile software."
Shuttleworth has said that he hopes to have Ubuntu phones on the market by 2014. "It's quite incredible that we're at this point when the power of the phone is crossing over with the baseline processing power of basic laptops," he said in an interview with the BBC.
"We're shaping the future of personal computing. Ubuntu is proven on the desktop, and uniquely positioned to be at the heart of the next wave of consumer electronics, combining a beautiful hand-held touch interface with a full PC experience when docked."
Aimed at developing countries
Canonical expects to be most successful with this product in developing markets, Shuttleworth said at a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Fair. The demand for smartphones in these regions is high, with mobiles often the only means of connecting to the internet.
A popular and acclaimed Linux distribution, Ubuntu is installed on some 20-million computers around the world, says Canonical, and its bustling user community means that work on the free-of-charge OS is always going on and that there are regular improvements and tweaks released.
It is estimated that by 2014 10% of new desktops and laptops will have Ubuntu pre- installed. According to Shuttleworth, the OS is installed on 30% of new computers of various brands in China.
The announcement has been met with interest and enthusiasm from mobile developers.
"It’s good news for consumers who are already living in a mobile-centric world," said Ian Drew, executive VP of marketing at UK-based ARM, a manufacturer of mobile processors. "Ubuntu will hand them the ability to enjoy a unified experience across the multiple platforms on which they lead their digital lives."
Unique user experience
The OS is up against tough competition in 2013, with Android OS 4.2 (Jelly Bean), Apple's iOS 6.0, the new Windows 8 and soon, the Blackberry 10 OS vying for market share.
The interface is described as clean, beautiful and fast, even for lower-end devices. It uses all four edges of the screen for swipe commands, meaning that users will be able to get their tasks done faster.
Swipe from the left to access favourite apps; from the right to instantly bring up the previously-used app and swipe again for the app used before that; from the top to access system setting; and from the bottom to call up app controls.
The inbox provides one-stop access to all emails, social media posts, calls and text messages.
Other distinctive features include one search for products, content and apps; text and voice commands in all applications; and apps available in both the native code and HTML5. The deal also includes access to Canonical’s secure cloud service Ubuntu One.
The software will run happily on Android hardware, so an Android-compatible device will work with Ubuntu Phone as well.