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Ubuntu Phone OS – What Are Its Chances?

By now, probably everyone interested in FOSS has heard that Canonical is going to be coming out with Ubuntu Phone OS, a version of Ubuntu specifically designed for the smartphone market. This OS will be in addition to the already available Ubuntu for Android. Media experts had prepared us to be ready for both a phone and a tablet offering, but that evidently isn’t going to happen–at least not yet.

Not surprisingly, the tech press has been all over this story since yesterday’s announcement–especially the FOSS press–making this the biggest story so far in this just born year. The stories that are appearing online are either straight forward reporting of the facts, or speculation on what this will mean for mobile and Ubuntu.

Reading the later category of article can be a bit confusing. Obviously, this early in the game nobody, including Canonical, has even a clue as to how this will work out. But that doesn’t stop some writers from getting out the old crystal ball and having a go at Free Software fortune telling.


Over at TechCrunch, Alex Williams is of the opinion that “Ubuntu Phone OS doesn’t stand a chance.” To begin with, he thinks that Shuttleworth & Company are at a disadvantage because they come to the table late–especially if you consider that it’ll be towards the end of this year or early in 2014 before this baby will be ready to be released for prime time. He also expresses concern that this new OS is “…oddly tied to the desktop,” which he sees as a big problem:

“The supposed benefit of the Ubuntu phone is that it’s a PC. That’s how Canonical marketed the introduction of Ubuntu for Android that it announced in 2012. Now comes much of the same for today’s news. That does not seem like a strong marketing play to me in this day and age. The desktop is not sexy anymore. And this year it will lose even more of its luster as the form factors for mobile make productivity apps more useful on a smartphone or tablet.”

Williams doesn’t mention that both issues were covered by Ubuntu in some detail when the new mobile strategy was announced yesterday. Indeed, Mark Shuttleworth doesn’t seem to see being late-to-the-mobile-party as a liability. In fact, quite the contrary, according to Ars Technica who quotes him as saying:

“…we have the great fortune to be coming to market late, in the sense that Moore’s Law has given us at least seven or eight generations of performance improvements since Android came to market and we’ve been able to take advantage of that. It’s the full Linux, it’s essentially Unix in your pocket. That means all the security stories that are true of desktop and server Ubuntu are true of the phone, it means the multi-user story is there, it means the application containment story is there, using Linux containers and virtualization. It means the parallel SMP [symmetric multi-processing] multi-core story is there from the beginning. You can do things with Ubuntu devices on the high end that just wouldn’t be possible with Android.”

As to the fact that Ubuntu’s mobile OS will basically offer the PC experience tailored for the smartphone, that’s also a plus for a variety of reasons, according to Jane Silber, Canonical’s CEO. For one thing, according to this quote on ZDNet, she thinks Ubuntu Phone will help open the door for Ubuntu’s other enterprise offerings:

“We expect Ubuntu to be popular in the enterprise market, enabling customers to provision a single secure device for all PC, thin client and phone functions. Ubuntu is already the most widely used Linux enterprise desktop, with customers in a wide range of sectors focused on security, cost and manageability.”

Will Ubuntu Phone OS be able to successfully compete with Android and iOS? It’s certainly too soon to tell, and it’ll depend on a lot of factors, many of which are out of Canonical’s area of control. However, there is much that the folks at Ubuntu can do to help assure the success of this new mobile OS. So far, I’m fairly confident that Shuttleworth & Company is well aware of this–so we perhaps won’t see this mobile version of Linux die on the vine, as so many other mobile Linux’s in the past have done.

I’m encouraged by the fact that the release date is set to be nearly a year away. Although I’m impatient and would like to have one of these babies in my hand right now, it will be important that Canonical has dotted all the “I”s, crossed all the “T”s and worked out all the bugs before bringing this to market.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see a demo of this OS in action, The Verge has posted this video:

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

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5 comments to Ubuntu Phone OS – What Are Its Chances?

  • Looks really great :)
    Now this is where Unity really shines, never felt at home with it as a PC desktop.
    Hope they come out soon, i´m tired of the closed system on my iPhone 4S even thoug it works great otherwise.

  • Brian

    I think the thing that will hurt the Ubuntu phone market the most, at least initially, will be the lack of apps tailored to the phone in comparison to the offerings that iOS and Android have available. But that could just be a matter of time. And to be serious contender manufacturers are going to have to offer it as an alternative pre-installed. Regular users hate the idea of installing a new OS. Even if it’s simple in their mind its rocket science. Geeks like myself don’t mind at all though.

    It looks really nice. I agree with Gustav, Unity looks really nice on the phone. I was never happy with trying to push navigation schemes that are appropriate for small touch devices to the desktop. Its the same reason I hate the Windows 8 interface. I look forward to this being released, I will def try it out.

  • istok

    “Will Ubuntu Phone OS be able to successfully compete with Android and iOS?”

    Sure it will! And Android and iOS will be as upset as that hippo by that fly buzzing around its tail.

  • a-non-e-mouse

    If they’re trying for consumer level devices, not a chance. Aside from being late to the game (meaning no name recognition (which at least MS has), no killer apps (like Google docs and mapping), no reputation, no cool factor), it suffers from the problems desktop Linux has, like library incompatibility every 6 months to a year. It has a tiny chance if they try for the enterprise market, but it’s more likely people will go for familiar (iOS, which is also pretty secure AND based on BSD), Android, or Windows (which business desktops already run, even if security sucks).