We are surrounded by smart devices: drones, thermostats, robotic vacuum cleaners, etc. What you may not know is that a majority of these devices are powered by some form of Linux. However these devices lack any standardized platform; every vendor is doing its own thing.
This ‘scratch my own itch’ approach can lead to serious problems. One such problem is patching these devices against newly found vulnerabilities such as Heartbleed and ShellShock. I doubt any company even bothered to push a patch to address these vulnerabilities. If I’m mistaken and they did try it would be a herculean task.
A second problem with this approach is that these devices fail to benefit from a wider ecosystem build by third party developers. Imagine an Android or iOS phone without any third party apps or accessories?
Canonical is turning these issues into opportunities waiting to be exploited. They have announced the release of Snappy Ubuntu Core, which is available for a wide range of devices running either ARM or X86 platform.
Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical says, “That means that on a very wide range of devices from the tiniest $35 devices up to the beefiest x86 server you can prototype and build and ship production devices that you can have confidence will automatically update themselves with the very latest version for all of the security fixes that people have come to expect from Ubuntu.”
Canonical is pushing Ubuntu Core on servers and other areas, but the space where I find it really exciting is in the small, smart devices that are all around us.
Security by design
Ubuntu Core with Snappy has an approach similar to Google’s Chrome OS where the OS gets automatic and has many advantages over the traditional model. First and foremost it believes in ‘separation of powers’ and keeps the OS and application isolated from each other.
This containerized approach will keep your devices secure, as the only damage a hacker could do would be to that specific compromised app, leaving the OS and other apps unaffected.
The second weapon that Ubuntu Core has is automated or ‘transactional updates’, similar to Chrome OS where a user is always running the latest version of the software. This approach also eliminates the irritation that users feel when carriers or hardware vendors choose to delay or not update devices at all.
I remember an anecdote from LinuxCon 2014 where someone mentioned Linux boot screen on inflight entertainment system. Linus Torvalds said that it’s not embarrassing to see the Linux boot screen, what’s embarrassing is that they are using a really old version of Linux.
In contrast to the current, ‘scratch your itch’ model used by a majority of vendors, a minimal, standardized, operating system will make it easier for them to keep their devices secure through automatic updates.
Talking about the state of OS on such devices Shuttleworth says, “A broader class of systems are currently bundling their own whole stack, which usually results in old kernels and few updates. For example, projects like Open-WRT and Tomato are firmware that includes the whole stack from the base kernel upwards. Various of them are now considering shifting up the stack, to deliver their UI and apps as snappy apps on top of Ubuntu Core. That way they will work on anything that’s enabled with Ubuntu, and get all the updates and freshness. The snappy mechanism gives them the same kind of control over the software they publish for their users.”
Making smart devices rich
Security is not the only unique selling point of the Snappy Ubuntu Core. It also addresses the second problem that these devices face: no access to third party vendors which could enhance the features of these devices. Ubuntu Core enables vendors to get access to an app store where their devices can continue to add features through third party applications.
Shuttleworth says, “For the first time, we can mix and match software from different vendors with devices from different vendors. All Ubuntu Core devices can talk to the same set of stores and it will be possible to install on devices that have been configured to allow additional applications.”
This model will boost the evolution of devices like drones, robots, etc. Imagine if your Roomba vacuum cleaner was able to do much more than just clean the house through additional apps. Just the way your smartphone is much more than just a phone!
Market embracing Ubuntu Core
Drones are selling like hotcakes these days and they can really benefit from a standardized operating system such as Snappy Ubuntu Core. Victor Mayoral Vilches, CTO of Erle Robotics says, “We are delighted to reveal the Erle-Copter as the world’s first Ubuntu Core powered drone that will stay secure automatically and can be upgraded with additional capabilities from the app store.”
Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) is building a new app store for robots using Snappy Ubuntu Core. Brian Gerkey, CEO of the OSRF says, “That creates a market for innovation and competition in smart robotics, with apps and updates delivered straight from developers to a new class of open, intelligent robots powered by open platforms and open protocols.”
The possibilities are immense with Ubuntu Core and only a science fiction writer can do justice to any speculation.
Show me the money
Everything looks exciting for the device makers, but I am curious where is the money for Canonical? The company already gives away Ubuntu server and desktop free of cost. Unlike Google it doesn’t have any advertising business model. So how is Canonical going to make money? They can’t continue to give their software for free, forever can they?
Shuttleworth explains, “The underlying enablement work is paid for in partnerships with the silicon providers, which allows developers and low-end device manufacturers to get the platform free. We have a range of additional services – from the app store to certification to update management and support – for app developers and device manufacturers and enterprise customers with many devices.”
Those who don’t want to pay any fee can still use Snappy. Shuttleworth adds, “It’s possible to make a snappy device without a license fee if you don’t need any of the services we provide. That’s enabled by our partnerships with the silicon industry, who want a free standard platform for their reference boards.”
Back to the future
As the world around us is getting smarter: even the light bulb in our houses are getting smarter and soon they will be more or less like Nest, self-learning and controlled via the Internet. Does that mean there is going to be a huge market for Snappy?
Shuttleworth says, “In the grand pantheon of electronics, 90% of the “things” will be tiny, like light bulbs, that I don’t imagine will run a full OS for a long time. But all the gateways and hubs and control systems and the smarter things like robots will definitely benefit from the open platform and horsepower. I think a similar percentage of developers of those things will choose Ubuntu for the device as choose Ubuntu for the public cloud, 60+ percent.”
It looks like embedded Linux will continue to rule those spaces. The areas where Snappy will make more sense are the devices will have a bit more computing power.
Shuttleworth says, “If the internal CPU is more than 600 Mhz and the system has more than 128MB RAM, then Ubuntu Core is a sensible option since it abstracts so many things for the developer or manufacturer. Even if there will only be one app (a device that does one thing) then it’s useful to get updates and such, and snappy takes care of all of that. For extensible devices (ones that will benefit from an app store) the benefits are even greater.”
With the current release Canonical is certainly targeting tinkerers who want to create things that don’t exist. But they will be attempting to forge relationships with vendors who deal with other classes of smart things.
The core challenge for Canonical
Canonical has some very great ideas — from Ubuntu TV to Ubuntu on Android to Ubuntu Phones — but the company seemingly lacks experience working with hardware vendors. It has not yet succeeded in bringing Ubuntu powered devices to the market. Even Valve Software switched from Ubuntu to Debian over some legal issues that could have made Ubuntu the de facto OS for the gaming world. And while there isn’t a single Ubuntu powered smartphone in the market, we see companies like Mozilla and Jolla doing a great job at working with partners and slowly increasing their market presence.
Snappy Ubuntu Core for Internet Things is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious Canonical products yet, but it’s difficult to say how the mainstream market will respond to it.
Canonical’s ambitions are huge and so are their competitors. Canonical is pitted against hardware giants like Intel and Samsung who are building their own Internet of Things, which is turning it into a chaotic space with no standards whatsoever. These players not only have immense financial resources, they also have something else Canonical doesn’t: direct access to hardware, and partners who will be willing to build and sell such devices.
So far Canonical hasn’t succeeded much outside the server space to get big hardware vendors. How will the company squeeze itself into such a competitive and messy space is a puzzle yet to be solved.
I hope Shuttleworth has some snappy solutions up his sleeves.