Canonical CEO: Ubuntu tablet OS will battle Android, iOS

Jane Silber believes there's plenty of room for a new player in tablets, TVs, and maybe even smartphones

Jane Silber is on a mission to get the Ubuntu Linux distribution onto mobile devices and TVs, rather than be stuck on desktop PCs. The CEO of Canonical (which makes Ubuntu) took over from the previous CEO, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth, in March 2010, but has been with the company since shortly after its 2004 founding. Right after New Year's Day, she paid a visit to InfoWorld offices in San Francisco to talk with InfoWorld Editor at Large Paul Krill about Canonical's ambitions in the mobile market as well as reflect on Canonical's successes and what separates it from rivals.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Canonical has been looking to attract mobile application developers to its platform. | Read InfoWorld's Mobile Edge blog for the latest perspectives on mobile technology. ]

InfoWorld: What are Canonical's goals for the client distro, the server distro, the smartphone distro, and tablet distro, and how will you measure success on these fronts?

Silber: On the client side, it's about moving from the desktop to other form factors. So tablet, TV, and at some point down in the future probably phone, but that's a bit off. And success, there is commercial success in terms of device manufacturers wanting to ship Ubuntu and its user base, its user adoption. There is a real demand for an alternative platform. We believe Ubuntu has all the characteristics that are needed to become that platform.

InfoWorld: Ubuntu is not on tablets now, correct?

Silber: We are not on tablets now, but later this year I expect announcements in that area.

InfoWorld: Will you compete with Google Android, Apple iOS, and others?

Silber: Yes. And we think we can do that effectively because of characteristics of Ubuntu as a platform, industry dynamics, and an increased wariness around the walled gardens of Apple and to some extent Google and even Amazon, as they are increasingly in this game as well. There is a demand for a platform that has characteristics that Ubuntu meets. The characteristics in my mind that are important are openness, and by openness I don't just mean open source code, I mean the governance structure, the ability to collaborate, the ability for there to be multiple devices from multiple vendors.

There has to be a strong developer ecosystem, and we've spent a lot of effort and time in the last couple years building up that developer ecosystem. Building up our software center, building tools to be able to connect the dots between developers and users so that a developer can write an app and submit it through a website and get it into the hands of users very quickly. A free app or a commercially paid app.

There's a certain level of quality and features that is needed in order to be a viable platform in this category, and Ubuntu has that, whereas some of the projects that have come and gone in the last couple years have never really cracked that. We've seen Moblin come and go from Intel, Maemo, MeeGo. Tizen is the latest incarnation -- we'll see if they ever produce anything. We're late in some of these areas. There's already Android tablets, and there aren't Ubuntu tablets. We know we're late, but we think the battle is not over, and we want to compete.

InfoWorld: What are you doing as far as touch technology?

Silber: We've developed something we call uTouch. And it's beginning to be pretty widely used, not just by Ubuntu but by other distros as well. But it's a piece of innovation and technology that's taken some time to develop and so it wasn't really credible to do a tablet until we had that.

InfoWorld: Do you have hardware vendors that are ready to do the Ubuntu tablets?

Silber: We are in conversation with multiple partners.

InfoWorld: Can you name any of them at this point?

Silber: I can't.

InfoWorld: Then the smartphones would follow the next year, this year?

Silber: The phones will follow, I don't want to put a specific timeline on that right now.

InfoWorld: Can you explain briefly the Ubuntu business model?

Silber: Ubuntu is free, and we sell services. Those services fall into a couple of different categories in terms of industry, services we provide to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and ODMs (original design manufacturers). We do a lot of hardware enablement, making Ubuntu work on machines as those products are developed, as they're coming out of the factories. We also provide the ongoing maintenance and updates for OEMs for any special custom products they make that are Ubuntu-based. We have another set of customers in the enterprise environment, so both desktop and server companies around the world are using Ubuntu in pretty large numbers.

InfoWorld: So you sell subscriptions?

Silber: It's a subscription sale. The product is called Ubuntu Advantage, which is a subscription-based service that includes the support you would expect.

InfoWorld: Why should a company want to use Ubuntu Linux instead of competitors like Red Hat Linux or Suse Linux?

Silber: Ubuntu is very strong in certain areas. On the server, we're very strong in any cloud-related deployments, both as a host OS or as a guest OS. We're very strong in what we call common workloads, so things like Web servers. Ubuntu is the most widely deployed Linux for Web servers worldwide.

InfoWorld: Why is that?

Silber: Partially because of the economics of it, that it is free. Partially because of the technical qualities of the product. It's just like our desktop -- we use the phrase "crisp and clutter-free." It's a just-what-you-need approach. We take that same kind of approach on a server, and that's what people want for Web servers. They don't want a bunch of clutter. So if you're doing anything cloud, if you're doing any of those common workloads, you're generally going to use Ubuntu on the server. It's the leading OS there. If you have a big Oracle database, chances are you're going to use Red Hat or Oracle Unbreakable Linux rather than Ubuntu.

People who are going to use Ubuntu are high-growth, Web 2.0, cloud-related deployments. Anything related to big data, Ubuntu is very well suited for, largely because a lot of that development is being done on Ubuntu and so all of those products work well on Ubuntu. The SAPs, Oracles, legacy workloads kinds of things, frankly that's not Ubuntu's strength. Depending on your use case, you may sometimes use Red Hat, but there's a lot of scenarios where Ubuntu is the leading OS there on the server and particularly cloud.

InfoWorld: What makes Ubuntu more suitable for cloud deployments than other Linux platforms?

Silber: We've been working on cloud technology from early on. We were quite early to the game of recognizing the value of cloud. You can very quickly deploy a cloud that has Ubuntu as the host OS, the infrastructure OS. Public clouds are also being built on Ubuntu. HP is developing a public cloud and that's built on Ubuntu. In terms of the guest images that run in a cloud, Ubuntu is very well-suited for that, again because we've optimized it to some extent to work in the cloud. But also we can address the economics of the cloud in a way that Red Hat can't. So if you're going to spin up a machine for two weeks -- the cloud is perfect for these bursts, this dynamic allocation of resources -- you don't want to buy a license for it.

InfoWorld: What's the user base size for Ubuntu?

Silber: We conservatively estimate it at at least 20 million.

InfoWorld: Linux for the most part has failed to make much headway on the desktop. Do you think the game is over for Linux on the desktop or is there still a chance for Linux to contend or even dominate there or compete with Windows?

Silber: I don't think it's over. The spotlight on that battle will move to other form factors, more mobile form factors, and we've all seen the predictions of PC sales and where the growth in PC sales are. But I think the desktop per se, the desktop and laptop world, remains a valuable and vital business area. And I don't write Linux or Ubuntu off at all. We ship tens of millions of machines with OEM partners that have Ubuntu preinstalled every year. Granted, not all of those stay Ubuntu. We know that some get pirated Windows on them, but there is just continually increasing interest in a non-Windows desktop environment.

InfoWorld: A release or two ago, Ubuntu ditched the traditional Gnome UI for a new custom-made interface called Unity. Predictably, perhaps, Canonical has caught a lot of flack for it. What is Canonical's take on this? Are you still committed to Unity?

Silber: The short answer is we're absolutely committed to Unity. It is continuing to evolve. Some of the complaints about it are things that we'll address, some of the complaints about it are things that we're taking as a design decision that people don't like.

InfoWorld: So what are people complaining about?

Silber: The tenor of the complaints has changed. When we first came out with it the major problem was that it was different, which is a big stumbling block, and I don't mean to make light of that. That's an important thing, change. People's relation with their computer is a very personal thing, and you get very attached to the way you do things and change is hard. So the first release that included Unity, the bulk of the issues were struggling with change.

Now, as we've moved on and as the product's gotten better, there are still complaints about it, and there are areas where it doesn't work smoothly for somebody's particular use case. As an example, one of the areas that we're working on for the upcoming release is around multiple monitors. There's a very simple scenario where you have a laptop and an external monitor plugged in, but there's a whole range of more complex scenarios where people work at home with two or three monitors spread out. We haven't yet fully nailed that whole experience, to be able to scale up to six monitors down to one.

InfoWorld: What are the benefits of Unity? What are the main reasons to stick with it?

Silber: It's a more natural and better interface paradigm. Our testing of it shows that people learn it more quickly, that they enjoy it more often, that it actually gets out of the way. It lets you focus on the task at hand and melds into the background when you don't want to deal with the operating system. It lets you deal with the applications.

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This story, "Canonical CEO: Ubuntu tablet OS will battle Android, iOS" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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