Will the Ubuntu Phone Actually Mean Anything?

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.

colorful generic smartphonesOf course, this all sounds great in theory. How it will play out in real life is anybody’s guess.

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.

Business Models

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.

But if I were a full-time mobile developer, I think I’d stick with my current platform, whether Apple, Android, or Windows for a while to see how the Ubuntu phones are received.

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.

8 Responses to “Will the Ubuntu Phone Actually Mean Anything?”

  1. I thought you might be more excited about Ubuntu for Phones. After reading through the developer docs, I started thinking this new venture might actually be a good thing for Canonical. The OS will run on slower devices and requires only minimal changes for manufacturers already making Android devices. I see a future for budget Ubuntu devices though I wonder if manufacturers will make them better than the budget Android devices available. Some of those are just terrible! I think the head start on app development ahead of the release of any real devices might be the right move. However, real devices must ship for this to work out…

  2. Michelle,

    Absolutely, I’d run Ubuntu today on my new Galaxy S III, if I could figure out how to root the darn thing. I’ve made one attempt, without success. Will try again, soon.

    The challenge I have is indicative of what a regular (non-tech) smart phone user might face. How do I even load Ubuntu onto my current phone? If Canonical can make it virtually goof-proof, that would go a long way to selling the idea to users.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Canonical has done a stellar job of promoting Linux. All the Ubuntu people I know are helpful and knowledgeable. They have good products.

    I hope Canonical will find value in my concerns and act accordingly.

    Rob Reilly
    Dice Mobile Development and Linux Community Guide

  3. Ubuntu already has marketplace for its apps and many paid apps/games selling good over there along with the free ones, and thus building a marketplace for it mobile apps is no big deal for them.. i would like to see a research article also written for the “FIREFOX OS” – MozillaFirefox’s new upcoming Mobile Operating System that its building for Mobile Devices and the Future of Dying “MEEGO”(now to become “Tizen” mobile OS) both also a linux based alternative to Ubuntu’s Mobile OS! .. because im too lazy to do further research without any bucks. Thanks!

    • Mosthated,

      Love the name.

      Yes, Android is a mobile version of Linux. I just miss the X-Server and all the nice desktop apps that reside in full-sized Linux. And, my new Galaxy S III should have no trouble running Linux, if I can get around to rooting the thing.

      Keep the discussions coming.

      Dice Mobile Development and Linux Community Guide

  4. Yes someone must come along to liberate us from the chains of Operating Systems that are designed with the primarily goal of generating revenue…

    No, Android is not like Linux…not enough, that is. Revolutionary at it’s inception, Google did well with the Linux `image` while making no real commitment to the standards and values associated with Linux, Android borrows from Linux; there is not enough ‘Linux’ in Android, not really.

    Conversely, Canonical (and Ubuntu, and Debian) `are` Linux. I would expect a much different experience; with a far (far, far, far) greater potential for creativity, extensibility and so on.

    I look forward to Canonical’s revolutionizing the use and uses for hand held devices. It was about time.

  5. While I think this addition to the mobile community will be great, I do not think it will be an easy transition for the general public. People who are already familiar with Ubuntu may revere this, but as you mentioned there probably wont be an “app store.” This would mean that the first generation of users would define the usage for phones running this OS. I look forward to seeing Canonical’s product, and what they will be able to accomplish.

  6. While I think this addition to the mobile community will be great, I do not think it will be an easy transition for the general public. People who are already familiar with Ubuntu may revere this, but as you mentioned there probably wont be an “app store.” This would mean that the first generation of users would define the usage for phones running this OS. I look forward to seeing Canonical’s product, and what they will be able to accomplish.