Ubuntu-based Smartphones Available In 2014


The world will see Ubuntu smartphones this year, but U.S. customers might not be first in line. That's the promise from Mark Shuttleworth, founder and CEO of Canonical, who today agreed with two manufacturers to build smartphones running Ubuntu Linux for distribution around the world. A press-only telephone briefing held today did not reveal prices, availability, specs or carriers, but did allow for some reading between the lines.

Employing 600 people in Europe, BQ is the second-largest provider of unlocked smartphones in Spain, with 1.5 million units sold last year. Even larger is Meizu, with more than 1,000 employees and about 600 retail stores across China, Hong Kong, Israel, Russia and the Ukraine. "We wanted a tight set of launch partners that specialize in this market," said Shuttleworth, of its chosen two. "BQ has built a reputation as a pioneering manufacturer of high-end devices with a track record for innovation and making inroads," he said. "And Meizu is among the leaders in a crop of second-generation phone manufacturers, highly energetic and focused on customer-centric design and differentiation."

Canonical's decision to select smaller, lesser-known companies to build its inaugural devices was intentional. "We like working with household names, but in this case we preferred to be a major part of their manufacturing story," said Shuttleworth. Meizu's business philosophy, he added, is to offer just one device in a market at a time. "You can interpolate from that which device" will get the company's sole focus. Shuttleworth said that as carriers come online, Canonical would be adding more manufacturers in 2015 as carriers and their OEMs come online.

The company first unveiled its mobile Ubuntu strategy at CES last year, and in the 12 months since, 16 carriers have joined Canonical's carrier advisory group. "That's a statement from [carriers] that Ubuntu is a strong alternative platform to Android and iOS," said Shuttleworth. "And in private, they've helped us engage the manufacturing industry and whittle the list down to today's two." Advisory group members based in the U.S. include T-Mobile and Verizon. There's also Deutsche Telekom, Portugal Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone.

Shuttleworth wouldn't specify which carrier might be the first to offer Ubuntu phones, but agreements have been in place with Deutsche Telekom and Verizon since last year's Ubuntu Edge crowdsourcing debacle. He also hinted that more info would be revealed at next week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. They'll also have industrial mockups of their new devices on display.

While he declined to provide technical specific details about upcoming Ubuntu smartphones, Shuttleworth did drop a few clues. Chief among them, he reaffirmed Canonical's convergence strategy, in which people would carry a single device and connect it to peripherals appropriate to the task at hand. "When you need a PC, it's your PC. It's also your phone, and it's a tablet too," he said, adding that Canonical and Ubuntu are "in a better place to capitalize on that that anyone else today."

The Ubuntu Edge was to contain 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB of storage, a multicore processor at 2.0 and 2.4GHz, and be capable of booting Ubuntu or Android and sharing files and resources across the two. Edge also was to have a 4.5-inch 1,280-x-720 display made of the highly durable sapphire. "Now companies are starting to build phones like that," Shuttleworth said. "Apple has snapped up a three-year supply of Sapphire and is calling its core CPU 'desktop class.' "

PUBLISHED FEB. 19, 2014