Despite all the technical and commercial hurdles, Canonical is well on its way to transforming Ubuntu for mobile devices into the real deal. For proof, look no further than the rapidly maturing application stack for touch-enabled hardware that both Ubuntu engineers and independent developers are churning out.
Perhaps the greatest challenge Canonical faces in establishing Ubuntu on smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices is simply getting the back end to work on new types of hardware. On that front, Ubuntu developers have been making remarkable progress, with Ubuntu already running relatively smoothly on Google's Nexus 7 tablet, and other platforms targeted for the future.
But a mobile operating system—especially one whose genealogy started with the desktop—is not very useful without apps as well. That's why Canonical has been investing heavily in new software that will run on all Ubuntu platforms, but is particularly suited for phones and tablets.
There are two subsets of these applications. The first are the work mostly of Ubuntu developers themselves, who are hard at work on a set of "Core Apps" that take full advantage of touch technology, and will help provide the backbone of Ubuntu on mobile hardware. As one of the developers involved in the effort detailed recently, the team is already incorporating some of these apps into the default Ubuntu image.
Meanwhile, independent developers are porting Android apps to run on Ubuntu-powered phones, as well as creating new ones. For now, the eclectic range of Ubuntu mobile apps from third-party developers doesn't compare to the tens of thousands available for Android and iOS, and this ecosystem will need to expand if Ubuntu is to become a true mobile platform for the masses. Still, Canonical is off to a good start, and its efforts to encourage independent app development will likely gain greater momentum as Ubuntu becomes more established on mobile devices.
For the channel, the success that Canonical has enjoyed so far in creating app content for the mobile face of Ubuntu is pretty significant. First, it gives open source an entirely new role to play within the mobile ecosystem by allowing developers to build for Linux in a much more open and authentic way than they can with Android, which may have a Linux core but is a far cry from distributions like Ubuntu.
The rise of mobile apps for Ubuntu could also integrate mobile computing with the traditional desktop alternative to a much greater extent than the channel has ever done before. Previously, the closest developers have come to marrying mobile and the desktop are Apple's platforms. Yet while OS X and iOS are similar, but their application stacks are hardly as seamlessly cross-platform as the one Canonical has set out to create for Ubuntu. If the company succeeds, it could reduce the barrier between devices in ways that Android and iOS developers might only dream of.