Canonical developing Ubuntu OS for tablets

Tablets with the OS could reach store shelves in the latter part of Q1 next year

Canonical is preparing a version of the Ubuntu OS for tablet computers as the company looks to extend its presence in the mobile space, a company executive said on Wednesday.

Tablets with the Ubuntu OS could become available late in next year's first quarter, said Chris Kenyon, Canonical's vice president of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) services. The OS will be a lightweight version of Linux with a simplified, touch-friendly user interface.

Tablets are handheld devices with multitouch screens and on-screen keyboards. This would be Canonical's first foray into the tablet market, where it will compete with Google's Android, Intel's Meego and Apple's iPhone-based OS, which is used in the iPad.

Canonical currently offers Ubuntu 10.04 for servers, PCs and netbooks. However, the company has "broader and bigger ambitions than just netbooks," Kenyon said.

With touch input and varying screen sizes, tablets are fundamentally different from PCs, Kenyon said. The focus will be on developing an OS with a simplified user interface that provides quick access to the most-used applications. Development efforts will also focus on adding on-screen keyboard features and compatibility for multitouch drivers.

"The devices world is a really exciting space right now and we're really bullish on it," Kenyon said. "Hats off to the iPad team for doing what they did."

On the hardware side, the company is also talking to tablet makers and component manufacturers for the OS to run faster while consuming less power, Kenyon said. The company has signed deals with chip makers Freescale, Texas Instruments and Marvell, which make chips based on the Arm processor for devices like tablets and netbooks. The company is also collaborating with Intel to improve power-states, and display companies like Pixel Qi, which develops battery-saving screens for laptops and tablets.

Canonical already provides cloud storage through the Ubuntu One service, and users can purchase music through the Ubuntu One Music Store. Canonical may look to make deals to bring more content to users, but Kenyon did not provide further details.

The tablet OS will be based on Ubuntu's upcoming version 10.10, which is code-named Maverick Meerkat. The company also will merge the tablet and netbook OS under a lightweight Linux version called Ubuntu Light. Canonical already offers a version of Ubuntu Light, but it is being pitched as a quick-boot companion to Windows, or as a lightweight OS for netbooks and PCs.

Canonical developed an edition of Ubuntu in 2008 for mobile Internet devices, but the category of devices failed to take off. The company is taking a renewed look at the mobile space with a new generation of mobile products and form factors emerging. However, there are no plans to release a version of Ubuntu for smartphones.

"It's a crowded space with a lot of powerful players," Kenyon said.

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