Canonical CEO: Ubuntu Tablet OS Will Battle Android, iOS

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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.

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