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Ubuntu phones won't ship till 2014, might be locked down by carriers

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Ubuntu phone
Ubuntu phone

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that smartphones running Ubuntu Linux would ship in October of this year. Ubuntu boss Mark Shuttleworth says that's a mistake. Today, the founder clarified that while a smartphone friendly version of the operating system — Ubuntu 13.10 — will be widely available in October with developer preview builds available this week, phones likely still won't ship until early 2014. Though the OS will be ready for phones this year, he explained that the devices themselves would probably still need months of carrier testing.

As we've discussed, that's a long time to wait for a new operating system given how fast the mobile industry moves, but timing might not be the only thorn in Canonical's side. During a conference call about Ubuntu's new touchscreen tablet interface, Shuttleworth told us that the company is working with a mystery OEM partner on two devices, both low-end and high-end smartphones, but that those devices might be branded and controlled to some degree by the cellular carrier that ends up selling them. It's a strategy similar to that of Tizen, a rival Linux-based operating system.

"It's open source, so it's possible for people to do grevious bodily harm to it."

Originally, Shuttleworth fielded questions about whether Ubuntu could make profits from the mobile operating system by saying the efforts were more about establishing Ubuntu as a brand — "It solves a lot of problems for us if people go into a store and see Ubuntu branding," he said — but at the same time he suggested that the company doesn't necessarily have much control over what its partners do with the operating system. "It's open source, so it's possible for people to do grevious bodily harm to it," he admitted.

We've seen a scenario like this play out before: with Android, almost every device looks, feels, and performs differently due to manufacturers and carriers adding layers upon layers of software. This so-called "fragmentation" of the operating system can also make it difficult for users to get the latest and greatest features on their phones, because that's extra work for carriers to test and approve new revisions, and carriers don't always have their customers' best interests in mind when it comes to such things.

For instance, Shuttleworth mentioned that he expects the new high-end Ubuntu smartphone to be software updatable to Ubuntu 14.04 at some point, which would add the new tablet UI — you could theoretically dock your smartphone with a larger touchscreen and be able to multitask with a tablet-sized app and a phone-sized app side by side. That sounds great, but it's just the kind of thing that carriers might be loathe to test and support quickly. Similarly, the traditional openness of Ubuntu might be a target for carrier lockdowns.

Shuttleworth was fairly optimistic on the call, suggesting that fragmentation isn't a worry here. "We've had fairly substantial conversations... none of [the carriers or OEMs] have expressed a desire to recreate the fragmentation of the Android operating system," he said, adding later, "I think my genuine impression is that people realize that fragmentation doesn't really help them."

"I think my genuine impression is that people realize that fragmentation doesn't really help them."

But should he be wrong, would Canonical have any way to keep it from happening? While Google has often bowed to carrier pressure, at least the company has tools: Google can prevent device manufacturers from bundling key apps like Gmail, Google Maps, and the Google Play Store, exert contractual pressure, and weed out forks of the operating system by calling them incompatible.

With Ubuntu, the company founder won't yet say if he has such a tool — "There are possibly licensing mechanisms that would prevent that" — but rather just that he thinks it's too much work for carriers to build the software on their own. "Certainly none of the company's we've engaged with have expressed the desire to do all of the work that's involved in a device like this and not engage with us... for the moment, at least, we think that gives us reasonable leverage in conversations."

"We're relatively confident how it will play out in the opening sequences of the chess game," he said.