Inside Canonical: the creators of Ubuntu have big plans for the future

Think Canonical and you’ll think Ubuntu – the free operating system that perhaps doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Sure, it’s barely nibbled at the edges of Windows’ market share on the desktop, and it’s not even flavour of the month among the Linux community any more, but household names such as Amazon, Netflix and Uber have built their cloud businesses on Ubuntu.

As a result, public perception of the company tends to focus on the desktop OS. “Most people know Ubuntu. They don’t know Canonical; they don’t know it’s a British-headquartered company,” admitted Maarten Ectors, the company’s vice president of Internet of Things, Proximity Cloud and Next-Gen Networks. He also might be the current world record holder for longest job title, which underlines his point: there’s much more going on at Canonical than most people realise.

The big new project at the company is Snappy Ubuntu Core – a slimmed-down rendition of Ubuntu that’s not designed for servers or desktop computers, but washing machines, medical equipment, robotic arms, smoke detectors and the gazillion and one other devices that will comprise the Internet of Things. Canonical’s charismatic founder, Mark Shuttleworth, describes it as the “smallest, safest Ubuntu ever”, while Ectors claims it will allow developers to “put apps in anything”.

I asked him to reveal more about life beyond the desktop OS, and what it’s like to work in the company’s London headquarters.

Canonical’s bet on the Internet of Things

canonical_ubuntu_launchpadFounder Mark Shuttleworth leads an Ubuntu development meeting at Canonical

While Ubuntu’s cloud business has been a big success, Canonical cannot truthfully say the same for its phone OS. It failed to convince enough backers to crowdfund its own smartphone, and the OS has only appeared on a very limited selection of third-party handsets. However, even if Ubuntu phones never catch on, the development work hasn’t gone to waste. “The two sides of the house that have been contributing to Ubuntu [the desktop/server side, and the phone OS developers] have combined for a third product,” explained Ectors.

That third product is Snappy Ubuntu Core. The phone developers have brought their understanding of remotely upgrading operating systems, and running apps securely by sandboxing them from the main operating system. The cloud team bring their knowledge of packaging applications in “containers”– virtual structures that get only a share of the device’s resources, so they can’t drag down overall performance, and can be run on virtually any type of hardware.

“We can put apps on anything now,” said Ectors. “You can have a robot vacuum cleaner, you can have a fridge, you can have Wi-Fi routers, you could have a stereo, a car, a mobile base station, a tractor, an MRI scanner – anything can have apps, and an app store.”

“We can put apps on anything now… anything can have apps, and an app store.”

“Most people don’t realise what that means,” added Ectors, pointing to the disruptive nature of Uber’s app, which has seen taxi drivers across the world speak out in protest at their business model being ripped apart by amateur drivers with smartphones. “Imagine now that the capability of apps, which was only contained to one device, can now be transported everywhere. You can put apps on all sorts of devices.”

Canonical’s vision is that individual devices won’t only get smarter, but will gain the ability to integrate with other services. Ectors gave the example of a washing machine with a touchscreen display that could guide a hapless owner through the various wash cycles, using videos streamed over the internet. Devices will also interact seamlessly with one another: the keypad on that same washing machine could, for example, be used to set the burglar alarm.

“Somebody comes in, they just tap in the code for the alarm on their washing machine and then they don’t need to have an extra alarm keypad installed next to the door, which comes with the headache of having the batteries changed every year,” Ectors said. “Or, you could put a thermostat app on there and basically make the Nest from Google irrelevant.”

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