Canonical recently rolled out plans for an Ubuntu smartphone, a year after unveiling its Ubuntu-powered TV. Over the years, the company’s done a great job of promoting Linux, and it shows in Ubuntu’s popularity. As a longtime Linux guy, I’m certainly glad to get the news that its folks are turning their attention to mobile devices. I can hardly wait to replace Android with Linux on my new Galaxy S III.
More importantly, how will bringing Linux to hand-held devices affect mobile developers and their careers over the next couple of years?
Three major factors will affect what we might see happen: Business models, the politics of mobile devices and the user experience.
Linux/Open Source and traditional smartphone business models are markedly different.
Linux and open source tools can typically be downloaded, tweaked, hacked and sold to your heart’s content, usually as long as the source code is available. It’s certainly a programmer’s cornucopia, offering literally hundreds of options in your choice of languages, frameworks and tools. Making money, of course, is usually tied to services and high-end, specialty programs.
Loading Linux on any given hardware depends on the platform’s availability and the interest of developers. Carriers, manufacturers and various organizations can help the effort, but if developers find too many restrictions on hardware use, they simply move on to a more inviting platform. That’s how things have been on the PC, and plenty of manufacturers take interest.
Linux and open source can also be a largely do-it-yourself proposition, although managing a Linux box is much easier than it was 10 years ago. Canonical and others also offer support packages.
In contrast, other operating systems — like Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows — can’t be easily tweaked for different platforms. Source code and management of the software is closely controlled. Apple offers ”it just works” products that users don’t have to worry about or support themselves. As far as hardware or operating systems go, most users aren’t impressed by what’s under the hood. Carriers seem comfortable with the arrangement because it helps them manage their support costs. Given all the stipulations in the contracts signed by the buyer, warranty claims are pretty cut and dried.
The Politics of Mobile Devices
Linux is the new kid on the block for mobile devices and are sure to challenge the status quo in a number of areas. Since much of the Internet and a huge number of Web services run on Linux machines, it only makes sense that operations and network people would flock to Linux on the phone.
Apple has a comprehensive lineup of integrated products that already share the same basic operating system. Just think about how many versions of ‘it just works” smartphones it has. At the same time, Google and Android want to dominate the mobile device world, and in their world there’s quite a collection of devices for users to choose from. Finally, Microsoft is fielding phones that use a variation Windows. They haven’t made much of a splash, so developing there provides fewer opportunities.
It’s taken a lot of time and effort for carriers and manufacturers to get their operating systems on the various platforms. And we see almost exclusive rights on individual device models. For example, you see Android running on Samsung’s Galaxy S III, but you’ll probably never see iOS there.
Will Canonical change that? It has quite a challenge ahead to woo smartphone and tablet manufacturers, especially since Apple and Google are already their major customers.
And, let’s not forget that the carriers certainly aren’t going to jeopardize their lock on the two-year re-up cycle. Their influence may have more to do with whether Linux gets onto mobile devices than the manufacturers, since carriers control access to the cellular and data networks.
The Supremely Important User Experience
Finally, the user download experience will affect the adoption of Linux on mobile devices. Apple’s and Google’s app stores work great. Users like them. Developers are always launching new applications and services. Everybody seems happy.
Without a store, everyday smartphone users will have to load their own programs on Linux-powered phones. Sure, geeks, tech fanatics and a lot of systems people will readily transition Linux. (I use those characterizations in a good way, by the way. I’m part of that group.) But the average consumer? It’s unlikely.
And, there’s always the question of support. Right now, if you root or change very much on your phone, your warranty is void and you’re on your own to get things straightened out.
Newcomer or Novelty?
Unless Canonical can convince users, manufacturers and carriers that there are some compelling reasons to adopt Linux, I think this will remain a novelty for the time being.
The carriers are going to be hard-pressed to relinquish their grip on the user data pipe. They’ve built the wireless networks, after all. Apple isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Neither are Google and Android. So, Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth has his work cut out for him.
As for me, I’m happy to run Linux on my smartphone and tablet. When the Ubuntu phone becomes available, I’ll go for it.
Who knows, Canonical’s device may just be the cell phone of the future and bring easy-to-use voice communication to billions of people.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments below.