Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth is bullish on PCs exposing millions of consumers to Linux – despite the industry succumbing to Jobsian tablet fever.
Shuttleworth reckons that Ubuntu is approaching a tipping point among the ordinary PC-buying public, with the distro shipping on a record (for Ubuntu) five million machines this year.
But people will use Ubuntu on PCs and netbooks with a keyboard or mouse – not a new version of Ubuntu for touching or stroking on a tablet, a category of device Shuttleworth reckons will occupy a small segment of the bigger market.
In fact, the man who invented Ubuntu believes that neither his Linux compatriots nor his Windows rivals are capable of shipping a "compelling" tablet for at least two years. "The tablet is exciting, but the absolute focus for us if we want to bring Ubuntu to a wider audience has to be the traditional form factor," Shuttleworth told us.
He believes companies are having a stab at tablets because no-one wants to be left out.
Just weeks ago, iPad inventor Steve Jobs was busy sticking it to Windows, saying people are evolving from some kind of agrarian PC past to a metropolitan iPad-future, leaving broken-down machines rusting in abandoned fields. You can get your iPad with regulation silver catsuit and protein-pill dinner on the other side of the time portal.
In the Linux and open-source camp, Intel and Nokia have teamed on MeeGo, while Google is expected to release Chrome OS later this year. Asus and Acer planning machines running both. Meanwhile, Microsoft has ponied up Windows Embedded Compact 7 and tablets coming from Asus, LG, and MSI.
But Shuttleworth is skeptical and predicts that while Apple will do nicely, those rushing into this space will trip.
"I don't believe anyone's going to ship a compelling Windows tablet and I don't believe any of the other Linux or Android options will be that great," Shuttleworth said. "The iPad will do very well for Apple, but relative to the volume the PC industry ships, it's still going to be small."
The problem is timing, as it will take two years for Linux-based offerings and Windows and Android on the tablet to reach the same level of sophistication as a traditional PC when it comes to input and be another five to 10 years before use and acceptance of tablets is established.
"[On Linux] We have great email apps, but they are not touch ready. The way you interact with them assumes you've got a keyboard and a mouse," he said.
He told The Reg: "There's a big difference between coming to market with a tablet and coming to market with a phenomenal tablet that can really compete. We will see a lot of hit-and-miss tablets. It's not as easy as putting out a netbooks."
According to Shuttleworth, netbooks and PCs remain the best hope for Ubuntu reaching the vast majority of computing users. One of Canonical's priorities is sliding Ubuntu onto machines alongside Windows using Ubuntu Light, with consumers having the option of using either thanks to dual-boot system.
Shuttleworth said at Canonical, there had been a "brutal" focus on boot speeds and also a cleaned up interface to keep hold of users who pick Ubuntu, putting them online in ten seconds.
"An old friend had heard about Ubuntu and wanted to know about how to get Ubuntu on his PC," he said. "It reminded me of the challenges we have in reaching that non technical audience - I remain focused on getting Ubuntu in front of people so they can get a fair experience."
Shuttleworth expects Ubuntu will ship on more than five million units this year using dual-boot and as the sole operating system.
The goal is to get Ubuntu on more PCs from existing and new OEM partners. Ubuntu's chief steward Canonical already works with PC and device makers to tune the software for their hardware to improve performance and reliability. "We have a fantastic relationship with Dell, but have relationships with OEMs where their confidence in using Ubuntu is proven in new regions. We'd like to grow the number of regions and projects with OEMs," Shuttleworth said noting Ubuntu is in "talks".
Canonical might not be prioritizing changes for tablets, but changes are in progress to make Ubuntu more suited to the limited screen space of netbooks in addition to tablets and other embedded devices.
Unity, unveiled in May, will become the interface for netbooks in Ubuntu 10.10 later this year. Unity is a reworking of the Ubuntu interface that will let applications be accessed through the main screen and provide additional touches like letting users skip and buy music tracks from the Ubuntu One online store through Ubuntu's volume controls.
Also, Ubuntu is not bypassing tablets as it can already be selected as the embedded operating system for these machines. This is done using something Canonical calls Ubuntu Core, which is the kernel, middleware, and a user-interface framework. It lacks the familiar Ubuntu interface.
On the server, Ubuntu 10.10 will include LXC Linux containers that will let you virtualize without deploying multiple kernels. Instead, a single kernel feeds multiple instances on a machine. That means in a cloud environment like Amazon's EC2, you can potentially run more virtual machines on the same server for the same price. ®