Mark Shuttleworth, billionaire entrepreneur and one-time space tourist, has spent the last six weeks on the road. He’s been zooming about on his private jet, trying to sell hardware makers, telecommunications companies, and developers on the idea that there’s room for yet another mobile operating system. Shuttleworth wants to see Ubuntu, the popular version of Linux that he developed, running on smartphones, tablets, and any other kind of device people think up.
Shuttleworth is not oblivious to just how crowded the mobile software market has become. Microsoft (MSFT) and Blackberry (BBRY) are spending billions of dollars to fight over the scraps left behind by Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG). He does, however, think the market is chaotic enough to give a real disrupter a chance. And so Canonical, Shuttleworth’s company behind Ubuntu, has presented the idea of running the exact same operating system on phones, tablets, TVs, PCs, and servers. This means that developers could write to one platform and have their apps run on all devices, and that things like security protocols can be consistent, from the smartphone to the data center. Says Shuttleworth: “The question is: Can we emerge as having the cleanest, most converged story?”
On Tuesday, Canonical unveiled the the tablet software’s preview version. Sure enough, the interface looks just like what you would find on a laptop or desktop running Ubuntu. And the tablet can do proper computer-type things such as multitasking. During a demonstration, Shuttleworth plays me a clip from The Hobbit while opening up a note-taking application. Then there’s the voice-activated search function that lets you bark out a command and set the tablet to work.
This being beta software, there are plenty of things—such as apps that stall—that need improvement. But on the whole, the tablet version of Ubuntu is beautiful and unlike anything else on the market. Anyone who wants to give it a try can take an Android tablet, erase the software, and install the early Ubuntu code. (It sounds so easy when you say it like that.)
The tablet software now complements the smartphone software Canonical showed off earlier this year. According to Shuttleworth, a major, unnamed chip maker and a handful of Asian hardware companies have agreed to back Ubuntu on devices. The harder part is convincing the large mobile carriers to pledge their support and marketing dollars. Shuttleworth has made it his goal to sign up at least two major carriers to his agenda by the first quarter of next year.
The idealized world Shuttleworth describes has people use an Ubuntu smartphone as their main computing device. He wants the hardware partners to then build a dock that the phone plugs into when you’re at your desk and a glass screen that the phone plugs into to form a tablet. This makes life easier for consumers because they have all their files and familiar apps, wherever they go.
Crucially, this could make life easier for corporations, too. Many businesses today already run Ubuntu on their servers in the data center and companies such as Google (GOOG) have thousands of Ubuntu PCs. This means that the software has corporate-level security and management tools. An administrator should be able to manage a fleet of Ubuntu-powered smartphones with the same confidence and tools used for PCs and servers.
The Canonical story does seem cleaner than Apple’s (AAPL), with its dueling computer and mobile OSs, and, say, Microsoft (MSFT) with its phone, Windows for ARM (ARMH) chips, and Windows for Intel (INTC) chips. “Microsoft is selling decaf, regular, and pretend coffee,” says Shuttleworth. That said, Canonical has started on this strategy very, very late. It’s at least a year away from mounting any kind of challenge to these rivals—and that’s if the software arrives working as promised.
Shuttleworth appears unfazed by these realities. “I think this is the year we stake our claim,” he says.