Rachel Metz

A View from Rachel Metz

Ubuntu Offers One Operating System for Any Device

PCs, phones, tablets, and TVs could cooperate if Ubuntu’s ambitious plan works out.

  • February 20, 2013

Making a single operating system work on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and TVs is a tricky proposition. You can’t just scale a mobile OS up or a desktop OS down; you have to build software that is flexible enough to adjust for different use cases. And if you want developers’ apps work across multiple devices running your OS, you have to figure out how to make that work, too.

This is what Canonical, the U.K. company that developed Linux-based operating system Ubuntu, is trying to do. On Tuesday, the company revealed its tablet interface for Ubuntu, which it called the “next step” in allowing a “unified family of experiences” on smartphones, tablets, PCs, and TVs. This follows Canonical’s January announcement of a smartphone version of its software (see “Ubuntu to Offer Smartphone Operating Software”) that it demonstrated at MIT in early February (see “Ubuntu Invites Phone Makers to Cheat on Google”). The company says its developer preview SDK, which previously allowed for the development of smartphone apps, will also allow for the development of tablet apps.

Ubuntu and Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth showed off the tablet software in a video, also posted Tuesday (check out his snazzy belt buckle). It looks pretty cool, with features such as the ability to show a phone app and a tablet app on the tablet screen at the same time (this is called “side stage”), and to create multiple encrypted user accounts. As with the Ubuntu smartphone software, the company says the tablet is meant to function as a regular Ubuntu PC when connected to a keyboard.

I’m all for more competition in the mobile device market–Apple and Google dominate today, and it’s great to see companies besides Microsoft and BlackBerry trying to grab some market share. Plenty of smartphone and tablet makers, app developers, and wireless carriers are interested in having more OS choices as a way of hedging their iOS and Android bets.

But, as is the case with all mobile platforms these days, success hinges largely on your ability to attract hot apps. This will be one of Ubuntu’s main challenges, along with ensuring those apps work across various different devices. The company hopes to make this process smoother by allowing developers to make both native or HTML5 apps, and say once written an app should work across phones, tablets and PCs running Ubuntu.

While I’m skeptical that it will be that easy, I’m hopeful developers will give it a shot. Given the current market landscape, it’s hard to envision Ubuntu running on a significant number of gadgets in the coming years (here in the U.S., at least), but I’m excited to watch and see if they can pull it off. We should get a better idea of how it’s going soon: Canonical says that a preview version of Ubuntu for phones and tablets will be available Thursday, and will be able to be installed on smartphones (including the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4) and Google’s Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets.

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