Canonical promises new Linux OS Ubuntu smartphones this year

A little more than a year after Canonical introduced its Ubuntu Touch platform for smartphones, the free, open-source software developer announced the first signed agreements with handset-makers to ship devices running the Linux-based operating system.

This week, Canonical said that Spain-based BQ and China-based Meizu have signed up to ship Ubuntu phones to customers in 2014. The announcement comes after Canonical struggled to get the OS off the ground in 2013 and turned to crowdfunding site Indiegogo in an effort to raise $32 million (£19.2 million) to produce a "superphone" dubbed the Ubuntu Edge.

The privately-held UK-based software developer is billing Ubuntu Touch as a more customisable alternative for independent phone makers than the dominant mobile OS, Google's Android, and other platforms like Apple's iOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone. A developer preview of the OS has been available since last February.

"The mobile industry has long been looking for a viable alternative to those that reign today. Ubuntu puts the control back into the hands of our partners and presents an exciting platform for consumers, delivering an experience which departs from the tired app icon grid of Android and iOS and provides a fluid, content-rich experience for all," said Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.

Shuttleworth's reference to consumers could mark a shift in strategy for Canonical as it ploughs the ground for its Ubuntu smartphone OS. The firm has in recent years focused on pitching software and services to the enterprise rather than the consumer market.

Canonical did not offer a firm date for the arrival of the first Ubuntu smartphones but said they would feature "mid- to high-end hardware." The first handsets from BQ and Meizu will eventually be sold by the phone makers themselves, as well as through Ubuntu.com, the company said.

According to Canonical the Ubuntu phones will put "content and services at the center of the experience, rather than hiding them behind stores and apps." OEM partners would have "unprecedented customization opportunities with a common UI toolkit," giving devices "their own unique footprint and without fragmenting the platform."

Meizu manufactures high-end smartphones sold in China, Hong Kong, Israel, Russia, and the Ukraine, while BQ shipped 1.5 million mobile devices in 2013 and is Spain's "second biggest seller of unlocked smartphones," according to Canonical.

"Ubuntu's intuitive and visually stunning user interface aligns with our own ethos of producing simple, innovative mobile experiences. This partnership gives us an opportunity to develop a truly different and compelling offering that will support our strategy to deliver devices to both China as well as internationally," Meizu executive Li Nan said in a statement.

Canonical said carriers and service providers supporting the Ubuntu smartphone platform include several big names on its 16-member Carrier Advisory Group such as Vodafone, EE, T-Mobile USA, Three Group, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, Telstra, and Portugal Telecom.

The software firm also said it is "working with a breadth of ISV partners, including The Weather Channel, GrooveShark, Evernote, and more, to bring the best applications and services to Ubuntu."