Enterprises that use the Ubuntu desktop operating system should be fascinated by the development of a Ubuntu operating system for cellular phones.
Integrating Ubuntu across multiple devices has interesting possibilities, but a lot of development remains to be done before IT departments could possibly purchase commercial devices.
Ubuntu for phones is an offshoot of the well-known desktop and server version of Ubuntu, one of the most popular versions of Linux. Canonical, which leads the open-source Ubuntu project and provides paid support services, is creating the mobile version for enterprises and consumers. Jane Silber, CEO of Canonical, says its mobile OS will enable businesses "to provision a single secure device for all PC, thin client, and phone functions. Ubuntu is already the most widely used Linux enterprise desktop, with customers in a wide range of sectors focused on security, cost and manageability."
Ubuntu for phones will offer security features with kernel-level controls that are similar to those on Ubuntu for desktops. Also, IT departments will be able manage phones with Landscape, the same management software Canonical offers to managing computers and servers.
Canonical also highlights the integration between the phone and desktop operating systems by demonstrating a handset connected to a full-size monitor and keyboard. "Ubuntu uniquely enables a new category of convergence device -- phones that dock to become full PCs and thin clients -- enabling enterprise IT departments to replace phones, thin clients and laptops with a single secure corporate device," the company says.
For several years, I've written about the concept of using smartphones as laptop replacements (see: Meet the New Laptop: Your Phone), including Research In Motion -- now BlackBerry -- CEO Thorsten Heins patting his BlackBerry phone and saying, "You will not carry a laptop within three to five years." (See: RIM Envisions Cellphones Replacing Laptops in the Enterprise.) Regardless of whether enterprises or consumers embrace this concept, today's smartphones already have the hardware muscle to serve as computers.
Ubuntu for phones borrows features from other operating systems, but it's not exactly like any of them and it actually looks rather pretty in the demos. For navigations, the software utilizes different swiping gestures on all four sides of the screen. By swiping from the left, the most used applications are shown vertically on the left side of the display.
Swiping across the entire screen displays the complete apps page, including recommended apps that users could install. Swiping from the bottom of the screen highlights controls for an app that's currently running. The settings icons running across the top of the screen can be tapped to control different functions or, alternatively, users can hide icons. In addition, speech recognition is built into the OS as an optional method for controlling apps.
The phone OS will be able to run both HTML5 Web apps as well as locally stored native apps. Mark Shuttleworth, who founded Canonical, said HTML5 apps will be able to access some features of the underlying OS, such as notifications and the messaging menu. Although HTML5 apps can work on any phone, he said, "They're really limited" compared to native, locally stored programs that are faster, more responsive, and offer superior graphics.
Data from native apps can be stored in Canonical's Ubuntu One personal cloud, which offers 5GB of free storage as well as different paid subscriptions. Ubuntu One is an advantage for users, but as with all non-enterprise services, IT departments undoubtedly will be leery of its use.
I can see enterprises that currently run Ubuntu being intrigued by the possibilities of integrating phones, desktops, laptops, and servers with a single computing platform. But will enterprises even get a chance to use Ubuntu-based phones?
Shuttleworth says phones will be available in 2014. But that's a long time to wait with iOS and Android firmly entrenched in the market, and Microsoft and BlackBerry aggressively promoting their respective operating systems of Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10. Will many software developers spend time coding Ubuntu mobile applications? And if all these mobile operating systems aren't enough for enterprises, there are even more -- such as Firefox, the Linux Foundation's Tizen, and Jolla's Sailfish -- scheduled for commercial release later this year.
Canonical has posted nicely produced demo videos and well-designed webpages. But it will require a lot more effort to convince IT departments to even supplement their existing mobile operating systems with Ubuntu.
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing