Can Canonical’s Ubuntu Be a Success on Mobile Devices?
It’s the buzz heard around the Internet, Ubuntu’s evangelist and founder Mark Shuttleworth has made a bigger push at the Ubuntu Developer Summit to put the Ubuntu Linux operating system on mobile devices, from phones to tablets. But is this realistic talk or just hypothetical hype? Here’s why I think this idea is already dead in the water.
A tip of the hat goes to Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols at ZDNet for reporting on Shuttleworth’s plan. Nichols said Shuttleworth’s push to put Ubuntu on mobile devices is not only a good idea, but Canonical is the only company that could make it happen. He also said that developers are familiar with Ubuntu’s Unity GUI and could more easily develop for Ubuntu than, say, Metro for Windows 8. Nichols also said Canonical could succeed where others such as “MeeGo, HP’s webOS and number other Linux distributions” have failed (except Android, or course).
Shuttleworth’s reason for driving into this market is his belief that many OEMs want to have some “leverage” with bigger name vendors they do business with, such as Microsoft and Google, in addition to expanding their offerings beyond what those vendors provide. And Shuttleworth said, “Few people are exclusively loyal to a single technology provider,” so adoption shouldn’t be a problem, right?
I think the problem with both Nichols’ and Shuttleworth’s views on the mobile scene is that they are, on the whole, completely unrealistic. MeeGo failed because Nokia and Intel failed to innovate at the right time, releasing only one phone with the MeeGo operating system. Adding to that, Nokia dropped its end of the bargain with Intel to push out Windows Phone 7 phones, which to Nokia seemed like a better idea. webOS failed because customer adoption was already low when Palm ran the show and HP botched its seemingly only chance at a revival. In both cases, these failed OSes went up against other competitive mobile operating systems that offered something more, better or both. In an oversaturated mobile marketplace, a new OS would have to be something completely unique — above and beyond what anyone else has seen — just to get some heads to turn.
Right now, there are three frontrunners: Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7. Explain to me why an individual would migrate from any of these ecosystems to join the Ubuntu mobile world?
This plays exactly into why I think Shuttleworth’s comments about “few people” being completely loyal to a technology brand is naive. I’ve found the mobile world to be highly religious. There are few converts, and the ones who are converted, are even more loyal than the original followers. Just look at BlackBerry users. More importantly, ask any iPhone 4S user if he or she is unhappy with his or her experience. And when it comes to Android, there are two kinds of users: those who are desperately loyal to Google, love the geek factor and profess the ‘freedom’ of an Android phone, and those who are incredibly jealous of the Apple ecosystem and product lineup and can’t wait to switch over.
Apple, out of any company, easily has the most brand loyalty. I’ve yet to hear of a single person who gave up an iPad to move to an Android tablet and is much happier because of it.
Microsoft already has a large base of loyalists across the IT world. Making a Windows Phone that links with the breadth of Microsoft solutions already in existence is a dream come true for many. Add the fact that developers can easily convert code to build Metro/Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7 apps — with the same toolkits they’ve already been using– and you’re already on more solid ground than Unity developers.
The problem with Ubuntu on mobile devices is that there simply isn’t anything to offer. There isn’t a reason to adopt it, especially now, and there isn’t a big enough ecosystem of developers and users to promote it or make it as useful as Android or iOS. If and when these devices see the light of day, will they even be on par with what Apple, Google and Microsoft are doing?
Apple, Google and Microsoft will continue building phones and operating systems to grow their user base and fight each other tooth and nail for both consumer and business audiences. Unless Canonical offers something so profoundly unique that it changes the entire paradigm of mobile computing, Ubuntu for mobile devices is doomed to obscurity at best.