Thoughts on Ubuntu Smartphones

Category: Linux

It's easy to dismiss Canonical's mobile plans as an also-ran, but with Blackberry 10 starting with a clean slate, Windows Phone 8 going on third gear despite trailing industry leaders iOS and Android, and Mozilla ratcheting up their own Mozilla OS for smartphones, third place is up for grabs. As a Linux user and a non-smartphone user, I do have my unsolicited two cents on Ubuntu's plans for mobile domination.

1. Don't neglect the desktop and servers. Canonical deserves a chance at the mobile market and a chance to make some real money. I understand the strategy and the viewpoint that desktops and laptops are "dead" and that tablets and smartphones are the rage and the future. However, I sincerely wish Canonical would perfect Ubuntu on the desktop and laptop first before they point their focus elsewhere. I'm not talking about the debacle that was Unity. As good as Ubuntu is, independent developers around the world actually produce better Ubuntu versions than Canonical. The mainstream desktop Ubuntu is by no means perfect. There's a reason why there are so many "Ubuntu-based" distributions out there. Ubuntu Server has also made inroads to user-friendly Linux farms so don't forget that, too.

2. The least path of resistance? If Ubuntu's expansion to mobile is their idea of the least path of resistance to global expansion, they're going to hit a wall. I disagree with some IT professionals that kids these days aren't aware of Linux or Ubuntu - there are plenty of machines dual-booted to some Linux distributions. When it comes to phones, however, today's generation of users are sublime experts. They know what works, how to use mobile, how to break the rules (see iOS) and what's the coolest platform. They may not have the purchasing power as compared to the pre-recession hey-day, but they know exactly what they need on an iOS, Windows, or Android device. Ubuntu on mobile is going to be a tough sell with the amount of penetration of current mobile platforms. Ubuntu is already present in a few consumer devices such as the Xtreamer Sidewinder media player and specialized desktops that need plenty of attention and press, too. With Linux making a splash at this year's CES, is venturing into smartphones really the best place to be?

"I run on Ubuntu."
Iron Man of the Avengers - art from Avengers Annual #7 (1977)

3. Ubuntu finally realized. If Ubuntu mobile can bridge platforms and fill the gaps between Windows, iOS, and Android then it would truly be representative of its humanist name and the philosophies behind the word "Ubuntu".

4. Android. If you haven't seen Android's market share and the testimonials of ex-iOS users who have migrated to Android then check out Wired or Ars Technica. Today, Android is no longer considered the underdog (Windows 8 on phones is). I also wouldn't discount ever-invincible iOS which despite all its flaws can elicit superlatives from its millions of worshipers (not all of them of which are even users).

"I am an Android."
Vision of the Avengers - art from Avengers Annual #7 (1977)

5. Working with the rest of the pack. I'm sincerely hoping Ubuntu on mobile works well with most Linux distributions (and not just with Ubuntu-based or Debian forks) and applications. If Ubuntu mobile has the power of its desktop brethren then we can see a lot of cross-pollination between the device and distributions. The potential is pretty awesome especially for veteran Linux users out there who know Linux like the back of their hand. There would be little need for "jail-breaking" and the sheer power is unimaginable. An Ubuntu smartphone should be able to connect and share data, utilities, applications, and resources with everything from a fully-equipped Fedora system to a frugal Arch Linux desktop. iOS users generally struggle with connecting their devices to a Linux machine so access to the Linux ecosystem is definitely a plus.

6. Economics dictate that competition is healthy. . . but it has to be able to compete first. Bluto was always on par with a Spinach-deprived Popeye making their encounters interesting before that can of green stuff pops into Popeye's pipe. If Ubuntu goes down even before it starts swinging in the market, then it's back to the drawing board and Linux fans everywhere will have to nurse a universal black in the eye - even if they were running Mageia or Puppy Linux.

7. Ubuntu smartphones could be great advertising for Linux if it's a success . . . a poor herald if it fails. As a Linux evangelist, I'm going to have to wait and see before I can tell everyone to go out and buy an Ubuntu-powered tablet or phone. Dell, HP, and independent manufacturers who have released laptops and desktops running on Ubuntu have had inconsistent success. Jumping into the already murky waters of mobile and tablets could be a knock-out blow either way.

8. Ubuntu isn't for everyone. Any longtime Linux user would tell you that as great as Ubuntu is, there are plenty of users out there (including me) who actually prefer other distributions like openSUSE, Fedora, Archlinux, and Debian. On the other hand, if Ubuntu becomes the representative of Linux in the tablet/smartphone world, it could certainly be the start of something big.

9. The Dark horse. . . ahem. . . Fox. Mozilla has their own plans for mobile devices. I'm pretty skeptical but between Ubuntu and Firefox, Firefox has the edge. Even before Ubuntu's popularity in the Linux universe, Mozilla's web browser was already making strong headway into Windows and Mac systems globally. The brand name is universally recognizable. In fact, while I was teaching technical support more than seven years ago, my trainees referred to Firefox as "Mozilla". Although Google Chrome and its brother Chromium has supplanted Firefox as the browser of choice in most operating systems, Mozilla Firefox is still the default browser in most Linux distributions (but Ubuntu is arguably not the default Linux distribution for Linux users). Moreover, Firefox's laser-type focus on what it plans to deliver on mobile (HTML5 and open web standards) makes more sense compared to Ubuntu's ambitious plans of an all-around "full PC" packed on a phone.

"I am Firefox powered!"
Phoenix of Excalibur - art from Marvel Masterpieces (1992)

10. Too much power on a phone? We already have ultraportables like the Macbook Air and hybrids like the Microsoft Surface for work. Who actually needs a fully-working PC on their smartphone? Even with bendy screens and larger almost unbreakable screens, smartphones are an accessory to a PC no matter how many apps you install on it. Most users are perfectly satisfied playing games on their iPhone, installing barcode readers, ebook readers, and web apps. Android devices are already overloaded with apps that consume multimedia. Will the world need a smartphone that could supposedly replace a PC when a perfectly serviceable (and more comfortable) laptop is around? One of the reasons why iOS was so successful because apps were optional and you installed what you wanted. Take it from a Linux user who has tested dozens of preconfigured Linux distributions - no one needs a device preinstalled with software they don't need.

"First your smartphone then iOS will rule the world!"
Screencap from Terminator the Sarah Connor Chronicles Season 1 Episode 3.

11. Watch for Microsoft Windows 8. Let's face it, everyone has dismissed Microsoft. But if Microsoft's strategy of creating a unified ecosystem linked by Windows 8 (tablets, phones, laptops, hybrid, XBOX) actually succeeds, then Ubuntu's plan might actually be a credible competitor. I've actually been hearing rumblings that Windows 8 phones are getting popular with college kids who are no longer enamored with the iPhone. Surface Pro may have started off slow on this terrible economy but the reviews are real and even if it doesn't take off, Windows 8 touchscreen hybrids are here to stay. If Ubuntu succeeds in the smartphone era, we may see an open sourced ecosystem yet.

"The future is still Microsoft Windows!"
Deathlok art from Spider-Man #21 (1992)


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