Canonical has confirmed that it has now signed agreements with two hardware partners to start delivering Ubuntu-based smartphones around the world later this year.

The announcment not only confirms that the company’s aspirations for a competitive mobile OS are still alive and kicking, but also that progress has been made since its failed Indiegogo project last year. Indeed, it’s now confirmed that the first devices will come from Spanish manufacturer bq and Chinese device maker Meizu.

While these might not be household names outside of their home markets (although they are notable in Europe and China respectively), it’s still good to hear that there are firm commitments to bring devices that run Ubuntu OS to market. The announcement also dovetails in neatly with Meizu’s announcement last month that it plans to expand its reach into the US market from Q3 of this year.

While specific details of handsets weren’t revealed, Canonical did say that “development programs have begun with the partners to provide smartphones with a superior user experience on mid to high-end hardware,” so it doesn’t seem like we’ll be seeing lower-end devices, at least not to begin with. When they do arrive at an as-yet unspecified time this year, the handsets will be available to buy directly through bq, Meizu and the Ubuntu.com websites.

The company wouldn’t reveal specifics of the devices, but Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, hinted that the bq device will be dual-SIM, while Meizu would likely be launching a device running Ubuntu OS, but on hardware that already exists in the company’s line-up.

Naturally, Ubuntu phones aren’t likely to make it into the mainstream without getting the backing and distribution afforded by national networks and retail chains, but the company said progress is being made on that front too and that Ubuntu has received significant support from “the world’s biggest carriers, some of which intend to work with OEM partners to bring phones to market this year”. So you could be seeing them in your local retailer’s shop sooner than expected.

Ubuntu mobile Canonical details first Ubuntu smartphone partners, devices due to arrive later this year

A long road

It has only been a year, but even so it has been a long road for Canonical to get even this far with Ubuntu for smartphones, and despite regular(-ish) updates about progress this is the first tangible confirmation of smartphone hardware that’s expected to be delivered this year – even if there isn’t an actual launch date just yet.

Despite the slog, Canonical is doing all it can to take the concept from the drawing board to reality and through things like working closely with the Carrier Advisory Group it formed in June last year, it might just have a shot at presenting a flexible, customizable OS that appeals to operators as well as consumers.

“Ubuntu introduces a new UI paradigm for mobile devices. Ubuntu puts content and services at the center of the experience, rather than hiding them behind stores and apps. This gives consumers a fresh and rich way to engage with their favorite videos, music and other mobile activities. It also means OEMs and operators have unprecedented customization opportunities with a common UI toolkit, which gives devices their own unique footprint and without fragmenting the platform,” Canonical said.

The challenge now that these first devices seem to be ‘in the bag’ will be convincing a recognizable OEM to run Ubuntu on its own smartphones. If that happens, consumers could soon begin to sit up and start paying attention.

Shuttleworth also said that the company was still planning to deliver Ubuntu on tablets too, but that it is “less of a milestone” than shipping smartphones for a company that already makes PCs. Nonetheless, there will be smartphones and tablets running the Touch OS next week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, so we’ll be going hands-on for a better idea of what to expect from an Ubuntu smartphone.