Who’s Up For an Ubuntu Phone?

Earlier today, Canonical announced its intent to deliver a new version of Ubuntu, targeting smartphones. To highlight some directions for 2013 and sell the concept of an Ubuntu phone, Mark Shuttleworth delivered a virtual keynote video. In the video, Shuttleworth shows off the phone UI in detail, demonstrating how users can interact with the device. Currently, Canonical is offering the technology to developers to grow the ecosystem. The first Ubuntu phones are scheduled to ship in early 2014.

In the video, Shuttleworth says that the phone has “two key audiences:”

  • “Enterprises that want the ability to combine phone, and thin client, and desktop into one highly secure device.” Because Ubuntu is Linux, you get the “security of Unix in your pocket.” Further, since an Ubuntu phone is an Ubuntu node, enterprises can manage them just like servers, using Ubuntu Landscape.
  • “Consumers who want a lean, beautiful smartphone.”  Shuttleworth says that consumers love Ubuntu already because it’s “crisp, clean, fast, and beautiful,” and these same qualities will manifest themselves in Ubuntu phones.

The question is, will it fly?

Frankly, I’m skeptical, with one exception. Here’s why.

Firstly, the folks at Canonical seem to be pursuing an “Ubuntu everywhere” sort of strategy, where Ubuntu runs on everything from supercomputers, to desktops, to clouds, to mobile devices. This is not a new idea. Microsoft chose a similar strategy with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, and ended up with Shimmer Floor Wax. The problem here is that an application optimized to run on a touch device with a small screen is fundamentally a different application than something that runs on a large-screened desktop system with a keyboard and mouse. While there is some commonality of low-level code, there really are two development teams required, each releasing their own separate product with different user interfaces. Anybody who saw the troubles with Java’s “write once, run anywhere” (WORA) strategy or who has ever tried to design a rich HTML 5 web site for both desktop and mobile knows the challenge. In the end, most “XYZ everywhere” strategies end up failing because XYZ becomes nothing more than a marketing slogan and not something developers can count on to substantially reduce their workload. Every application release must still be tweaked and tested, and that last 10% of the work still takes 90% of the time.

Now, does that mean that an “Ubuntu everywhere” strategy can’t possibly work? No, but let’s concede that it’s a really hard challenge, and Canonical would be the first to make it fly.

Secondly, I’m skeptical of the user groups that Shuttleworth identifies, but with the one exception I mentioned earlier. Let’s dispatch consumers first. In the video, Shuttleworth barely mentions them and I think it was a stretch to even do so. Suggesting that consumers will flock to an Ubuntu phone because it’s “crip, clean, fast, and beautiful” is to ignore all the other phones on the market that are crisp, clean, fast, and beautiful. iPhone or Android Jellybean, anybody? Undoubtedly, someone will find an Ubuntu phone more crisp, more clean, more zippy, or a bit more beautiful than the alternatives, but that’s a hard case to make. It’s already a crowded, noisy market.

How about enterprises? This is the one area where Shuttleworth might have a point. A couple weeks ago I wrote about concerns that people have with Android security, and so Ubuntu might offer some advantage there for enterprises. But pushing in the other direction are two substantial forces:

  1. BYOD — If consumers are bringing their own devices to work, then the enterprise might have only subtle control over the decision process. For instance, an enterprise might be able to narrow the field by eliminating devices that it feels are wholly unsafe, but it would have a hard time mandating that people only use Ubuntu phones.
  2. Application compatibility — If the enterprise wants to use existing apps that only exist on other platforms, it will be forced to those other platforms, regardless of a preference. Remember that Canonical is coming to this party a bit late, with the first phones showing up in 2014. It has a lot of ground to make up, and the other guys aren’t standing still. Sure, Ubuntu has a bunch of apps that already run on it, but those are desktop and server apps, not mobile apps. There were a jillion apps for OS X and Windows and Java before iOS, Windows Phone 8, and Android arrived, and yet those ecosystems had to evolve and grow over time, too.

So, what we’re left with is Ubuntu having an advantage in enterprise accounts that have tight control over their mobile devices (enterprise-issued devices, with no BYOD) and where applications are already ported or can be ported quickly to meet enterprise requirements. Is that a substantial fraction of the enterprise landscape? Canonical might argue yes, but I’m skeptical.

Finally, there’s the competition. Remember that Canonical is coming late to a party with four industry heavyweights already duking it out: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and even Amazon (tablets, not phones, today, but we’ll see how that evolves over time). All of them have their own operating system variant (Amazon using it’s own version of Android), app stores, content (music, books, etc., though Microsoft is the odd man out here), and cloud computing environments for server-side, all of which represent huge revenue streams. All of them have built large development communities and have established toolchains. All of them are acceptable to both consumers and enterprises at some level. The sum total of all that doesn’t leave a lot of white space for Canonical to attack. Remember that Nokia got forced out of this market with it’s tail between its legs a couple years ago, and is now cutting deals with the others to run on its devices. RIM is hanging by a thread. Cisco tried enterprise-focused tablets and gave up.

In the end, it’s going to take more than just a clean UI and enterprise security to break into the market. Clearly, there are some Linux and Ubuntu fanboys that will buy an Ubuntu phone just to have it. That crew will upgrade their existing Google Galaxy Nexus devices just for the thrill of it. The real mark of success, however, is going to be penetration into the mass consumer or enterprise markets that have never heard the term “jailbreak” and that are going to buy the phone straight-up on its merits. And I’m not sure I see enough differentiation or developer synergy to propel Canonical past the multiple high hurdles in its way.

Via: The Verge

Update (Jan 5, 2012): Oh yea, I had forgotten that Mozilla is also in the game with Firefox OS, which is also pretty crisp, clean, and beautiful, if you ask me (I don’t know about fast as the simulator is the only thing that seems to be available at this point).

Update (Jan 5, 2012): And let’s not forget about Samsung and Intel with Tizen.

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