Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ubuntu for smartphones: Better late...?


Yes, I am sure you have heard the news yesterday... Ubuntu for smartphones! Great news, right? Here's the official video hosted by non other than Mr. Mark Shuttleworth himself. This video is particularly interesting because it sums up what 2012 meant for Ubuntu, what milestones have been achieved (from a highly optimistic lens, I might add) so far and where it's headed moving forward:

So it's all good and dandy, right?... Well, maybe not so. As exciting as this announcement is, as amazing and drooling it may be for us techies, it's just that, an announcement. Is it any different to what we have already seen about Ubuntu TV or Ubuntu for Android? Will it become a reality this time?

If everything goes smoothly (which is never really the case), we should start to see Ubuntu smartphone(s) early 2014. Even in a perfect World in which Ubuntu would be released 100% ready and bug free, with all applications available and fully functional, I am afraid it would still be too late.


We have seen vast improvement in Android during 2012. Just a few months after Android 4 was released, we turned into 2012, and during its twelve months, everything about Android and its ecosystem matured exponentially. From stability and performance to UI design and the corresponding standards solidifying around the HOLO interface, Android finally became the stronger contender to iOS. Flexibility, openness and customization had always been Android strengths, but during 2012 they aligned with a robust, much more secure and faster OS. Along with that came tons of improvements to Google's own apps, the most popular being Google Now, Google Maps, Google+, Google Earth 3D, Gmail and Google Drive. However, Google did not settle at the OS or application level, they pushed like crazy to expand the ecosystem, improving and polishing the incredible Google Play store, which now sells all kinds of media in a wide array of countries. As if that was not enough, Google made a strong effort to make its own line of devices grow, and now the Nexus brand is very popular Worldwide, not just in smartphones, but also in tablets.

Long story short, today there are two very well defined and fully mature ecosystems available, with a third one coming together pretty fast, Windows Mobile. Microsoft and their many partners are pushing hard to make Windows Mobile another strong contender, and it's hard to argue they will fail. Like Google, they offer a wide array of services, as well as native integration with the most popular desktop OS available today. Certainly, the Windows Mobile ecosystem is still a bit immature compared to the two big dogs out there, but I believe it will be on par, or at least fully mature, come 2014.

That leaves us with three incredibly strong contenders by the time Ubuntu for smartphones should be ready to hit the market, but that's not it. RIM will present its much renewed Blackberry 10 OS in just a few days, and they seem in a good position to regain some of the enterprise leadership they had not so long ago. Last, but not least, it's important to remember that there are other open alternatives already available and ahead of Ubuntu, such as OPEN WEBOS, which has HP support and already has version 1.0 available and working Alphas:

Also, let's not forget about MOZILLA OS.

Is Canonical's offer so compelling to be able to make some room for itself in such a crowded market? What exactly is it offering that should attract OEMs over other more mature alternatives like the ones mentioned above?


Yes, it is indeed a very crowded market, but also one not very friendly to openness. The big names in the carrier market in the US, AT&T or Verizon to name a couple, have openly shown their disapproval for open mobile OS. They don't like people doing whatever they want with their phones because they want a controlled and profitable environment in which to make money. Android being so big may have the strength to push back on some of their limitations, but it is very unlikely that a poor underdog will cut it for them. Unfortunately, we have seen many examples proving that in order to survive in the mobile market, specially in the US, it is key to have the support of a wide range of carriers. Samsung VS HTC is a clear example.

Will Canonical and their partners be able to get support from many carriers to guarantee some success?


I have argued in the past that, as mobile ecosystems mature, it's less and less about the device itself, or a particular UI, or even apps, and more and more about what the services and the integration available to the user.

I am a Google user, extensively using lots of their services, so for me it is clearly advantageous to choose Android and have all of my stuff seamlessly integrated, from the desktop to my mobile and/or tablet. On the other hand, I work in a company which went Microsoft's way, meaning Outlook, MS Office, Sharepoint, Internet explorer and things of the like are the tools of choice. In that case, it is clearly better to go Windows mobile, and the same rationale would apply if Apple services and products were there instead.

Where does Ubuntu fit in there? In terms of services, it offers almost nothing, perhaps Ubuntu One and Music, but they are already available for Android and they are far from the industry leading alternatives out there. Therefore, what exactly does the Ubuntu experience offer to lure an Android or iOS user away from his/her services and devices? Little or nothing, I am afraid, and even less a year from now.


I know this article has a negative vibe to it, but I couldn't help it. We have seen how quickly industry leading solutions fell down to pieces overnight (RIM, Symbian) in an incredibly tight and competitive environment. To think that Ubuntu can make a difference because it is open and has a beautiful interface is simply naive and ignorant, specially since there are already open alternatives that are struggling and because a sleek and beautiful interface means little in a World of custom launchers like Android.

I honestly hope I am wrong, I have been using Ubuntu for years and sincerely wish they succeed on this one, but it is clear Canonical face a massive challenge this time, probably bigger than the desktop one. In fact, I can only think of one little niche where they can enjoy some modest success: budget phones. If they manage to squeeze a decent performance on humble hardware, they may attract some attention and buyers here and there, but looking at some of the latest budget offerings from Nokia and other Chinese manufacturers... It will still be a huge challenge. Moreover, that would be the exact same strategy Mozilla is looking into!