Ubuntu chief Shuttleworth on how the smartphone OS will jump the 'app gap'

BARCELONA, Spain--It's no secret that smartphone operating systems success or failure depends upon the types of applications they can offer to users. Apple centered much of its initial iOS and iPhone advertising on the idea that "there's an app for that." And Android proponents often point to the fact that the total number of apps designed for Android is now on par with the total number of apps built for Apple's iOS.


Click here for a slideshow featuring Ubuntu and other phones from Mobile World Congress.

Further, app offerings continue to drive important strategic shifts in the market--indeed, the ability to offer Android applications was a key driver in Nokia's decision to replace Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system--which offers just a sliver of the number of apps available for iOS and Android--with Android in Nokia's newest low-cost smartphone, the Android-powered Nokia X. And BlackBerry's new BB10 OS has often been criticized for not offering enough applications for users. This situation is often referred to as the "app gap" between market-leading operating systems and those wishing to challenge them.

But Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical and the chief proponent of the new Ubuntu operating system for smartphones, believes that the number of Ubuntu-powered smartphones will eventually surpass the number of Windows Phone smartphones, thereby becoming the world's No. 3 smartphone OS behind Android and iOS

To reach that goal, Shuttleworth acknowledged that Ubuntu will need to rally mobile app developers to its platform. "We agree that apps are a critical factor," he said in an interview here this week at the Mobile World Congress trade show.

Shuttleworth first pointed out that Ubuntu for smartphones runs on 95 percent of the same codebase as the Linux-based Ubuntu for desktop computers, which the company said is available on "millions" of desktop PCs, laptops and servers and includes 3,000 applications. He said in the future the code base between Ubuntu for the desktop and Ubuntu for smartphones would be 100 percent the same.

As for smartphone apps, Shuttleworth said that porting an Android app to Ubuntu is "a trivial operation," and he said that a large number of developers enjoy building apps on Linux, which is the underlying platform for Ubuntu. "We'll make it very easy for developers" to build Ubuntu smartphone apps, he said. Shuttleworth also promised that Ubuntu would not suffer from the fragmentation that has affected the Android landscape, which he said means that Ubuntu only has to surpass some of the different versions of Android in terms of market share for it to become a viable platform for developers.

Shuttleworth also noted that Ubuntu would support both native Linux and HTML5 apps, and he said the platform's Web browser will be built on WebKit, the same underlying technology that powers iOS' Safari and Android's Chrome browsers. This, he said, would allow Ubuntu phones to run HTML5 apps more smoothly than the Firefox OS from Mozilla, which is powered by Mozilla's own HTML5 technology. Mozilla, for its part, argues that its Firefox OS is superior to other HTML5 browsers.

Finally, Shuttleworth said Ubuntu has received voices of support from a wide range of app developers including Facebook and Evernote, which have promised to support the Ubuntu platform either with native apps or HTML5 apps. "We're aiming to launch with a reasonable approximation of the top 50 apps," Shuttleworth said.

Chinese electronics company Meizu and Spanish phone maker bq said last week they will sell smartphones running Canonical's Ubuntu operating system this year. Further, 16 carriers globally--including T-Mobile US and Verizon Wireless in the United States--have indicated support for the platform (although that doesn't necessarily mean they will actually sell Ubuntu phones). Shuttleworth said that he expects Meizu and bq to sell "a couple hundred thousand units" this year with a 10 percent return rate. He also said that much larger and more well-known smartphone manufacturers are currently evaluating plans to build Ubuntu phones, potentially as early as next year. Shuttleworth declined to provide additional specifics, including where Ubuntu phones would be sold this year and how much they would cost.

And what of Ubuntu's APIs for mapping and other services? Such services represent a key element of the sales strategy of iOS, Android and Windows Phone. For example, Nokia replaced Google's services in its Android phone with many of Microsoft's services, thus requiring Android developers who wish to support its X phones to tweak their existing Android apps in order to connect to those Microsoft services instead. Amazon has taken a similar tack.

Shuttleworth said that Ubuntu is currently working to sign up third-party companies to provide services like mapping and notifications. He said those providers could change depending on where the phone is sold--for example, a wireless carrier might provide their own mapping service for the Ubuntu phones it sells. Shuttleworth said users may be able to choose which services they want to access. "We've signed deals for mapping and other services but I'm not going to disclose those now," Shuttleworth said, adding that services providers including Microsoft and Google would not be prohibited in Ubuntu smartphones.

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