Ubuntu Touch phone
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Ubuntu founder hopes its mobile OS could one day rival Android and iOS

Ubuntu Touch could one day compete with the likes of Android and iOS - but only if the smartphone becomes a more “general-purpose device”, according to Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions and is used extensively in back-end infrastructure for telecommunications companies, with a loyal consumer following on laptops and desktops, too.

Ubuntu Touch, a version of the operating system designed specifically for smartphones, was first unveiled in early 2013 but has yet to see widespread adoption by major manufacturers.

Even after four years, the software has not yet finished development, although an Ubuntu representative said it was now around 95 per cent complete.

When pressed as to whether he thinks Ubuntu Touch will eventually become a major competitor in the smartphone space, Shuttleworth said: “For me, what’s important is: are we creating possibilities for developers? Are we enabling the people who want to innovate and create? We’ve done that on people’s laptops. This is our vision of what it might be like in a phone/tablet/laptop world. It’s a pretty compelling view of software.”

The software does take a unique approach to touchscreen navigation that is unlike both Android and iOS. In our brief hands-on demo, it didn’t run as smoothly as one would expect, although it was shown on the Fairphone, an underpowered device that is aimed at conscientious consumers rather than those looking for the latest and greatest handset.

“The guys from Fairphone have ported it to their device. I think it’s come together really beautifully, it’s a lovely set of experiences,” Shuttleworth said.

He noted that Ubuntu Touch has taken a lot of the familiar elements from the desktop OS: “Ultimately, we would like to be able to fully converge them so that this could become your desktop effectively. I’m very proud of the work that these guys have done.”

“I love this work, I think the guys have done amazing work. The judgement is yet to be passed on whether this carries the day, but I think it’s an expression of our desire to really think about what’s important to each of these categories and bring a common platform to them.”

Ubuntu’s free desktop OS can already be installed on any Windows PC and run parallel to it, giving users a choice between them. However, this is a feat that is far more difficult to emulate in the world of smartphones.

“It’s much harder on the phone. Because Android allows people to basically hack shit up underneath, there isn’t the same standardisation that you get in the PC industry,” he said, referring to the fact that Android allows manufacturers greater customisation of their hardware, making one device markedly different from another, unlike Windows which has a narrower spectrum of hardware configurations.

“In the PC industry, because Windows has to install, there is at least a notional standard. So if Windows can install, then we can install, as long as we do things the same way at that base level. At a driver level it’s not standardised in any way, shape or form.”

Shuttleworth holds out more hope for the future of Ubuntu Touch should phones start to encroach on the desktop space and be used as the main device at home as well as on the go.

“I could see that being the case if the phone becomes a more general-purpose device. That’s really the vision here, that potentially you’ll get a common platform across all of these different kinds of devices. But the future is not yet written.”

Shuttleworth also noted that a large number of mobile networks already run their back-end infrastructure on Ubuntu and that the smartphone itself was just one device in this equation.

“There’s more Ubuntu running today than ever before. Engineers now have more authority to drive change in their organisation. That’s who we appeal to, the guys who want to innovate for a bank, a telco [telecommunications operator], a robotics company or a machine learning company,” he said.

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