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Ubuntu's Maverick Mobile Move

By Katherine Noyes
Nov 7, 2011 5:00 AM PT

If there was ever any doubt as to Canonical's true intentions with its touch-enabled Unity interface, those doubts were laid to rest last week.

Ubuntu's Maverick Mobile Move

Unity has often been described as a "mobile-inspired" interface, and voila! Canonical has finally admitted that it plans to bring Ubuntu onto mobile devices. At last, it all makes sense!

While few have questioned the reasons behind Canonical's move in this so-called "post-PC" era, the timing is another matter. Plans call for Ubuntu to arrive on mobile shores no sooner than 2014, causing more than a few furrowed brows last week in the Linux blogosphere.

Coming of the 'U-Phone'

"Can Ubuntu Linux win on smartphones and tablets?" read one headline shortly after the news broke, for example.

"Can Ubuntu Compete on Smartphones, Tablets?" wondered another.

"Is Ubuntu Linux Too Late to the Mobile Game?" worried yet another.

It wasn't long before Slashdot bloggers got involved, and while many in the blogosphere expressed concern over Ubuntu's late arrival, yearnings for the promised "U-Phone" could also be heard.

Down at the blogosphere's Punchy Penguin Cafe, Linux Girl knew it was time to learn more.

'Plenty of Room for Ubuntu'

"It's never too late to go mobile," opined blogger Robert Pogson.

"After M$ and Nokia crash and burn, there will be plenty of room for Ubuntu," he added. "The mobile space is very diverse, with many manufacturers participating and several OS in play. Ubuntu should consider being mobile ahead of M$ but being late is better than never."

A Matter of User Input

Similarly, "I don't think it is at all too late," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told Linux Girl. "Android entered not too long ago, Microsoft is still trying (largely unsuccessfully) to gain a foothold, and so forth."

The bigger question, Travers added, "is whether Ubuntu or any other current Linux distro is up to the job."

The problem is a question of user input, Travers suggested.

'No Amount of Software Can Solve It'

Both Unity and GNOME 3 "show a remarkable tendency to overlook the fact that mobile devices require different user interfaces than laptops or desktops," he explained. "I remain less than convinced it is even theoretically possible to build an excellent user interface that works with keyboard and mouse on one hand and with multitouch-based touchscreens on the other."

Interfaces can "and should be optimized for one environment or the other, not made to function only adequately across both," Travers added. "This is one of the things Apple and Android do very well in this space, and one reason Android will probably never be a hit on laptops."

This tradeoff, in fact, "is fundamental, and no amount of software and UI engineering can solve it," he concluded.

'The Microsoft Mistake'

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack saw it similarly.

"I think they stand a chance on tablets even though they don't stand much of any chance on the phone, but they are making the Microsoft mistake of assuming everyone wants the same interface everywhere," Mack told Linux Girl.

"My phone and tablet are both used close to my body, so using the touch screen is easy," Mack explained.

The PC, on the other hand, "would be much more annoying if I equipped it with touch screens, and fixing that would make it harder to get day-to-day work done," he added.

'Amazon Is Going to Grab the Low End'

Similarly, "color me unimpressed," said Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site. "I'm filing this announcement with the one two and a half years ago about having Android apps running on Ubuntu."

In a like amount of time from now, "Ubuntu will be competing with over a billion Apple and Android smartphones and tablets, along with developer communities that even today make over a billion dollars a year and a billion downloads a month," Hudson explained. "Those billions buy a lot of mind share."

In the interim, "Amazon is going to continue to grab the low end of the tablet market and add more features as the underlying technology continues to get cheaper," she added. "Even Windows 8 will have been out for a couple of years by then, and manufacturers will be kicking the tires of Windows 9."

'Canonical Missed the Qualifying Heats'

In consumer electronics such as TVs and disc players, meanwhile, "manufacturers already have linux-based systems in place which they will continue to invest in over the next two years," Hudson pointed out. "Canonical simply can't afford to pull a MicroNokia and pay them to switch, and let's not forget that touch interfaces are useless on those devices.

"They're going to be more interested in integrating with Amazon and Netflix than in switching operating systems," she said.

So, "Shuttleworth might be right when he writes, 'There is no winner in place yet' in this race, but Canonical not only missed the qualifying heats, it isn't even warming the bench," Hudson concluded.

"What Canonical IS succeeding at is alienating a large segment of their current userbase," she added. "There are plenty of users who have no use for a tablet UI, feel betrayed, and are now actively venting in online forums and recommending alternatives to Ubuntu."

'Who Will Be Ubuntu Mobile Nokia?'

Hardware questions are another potential sticking point, noted Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

"Until Canonical can find a hardware manufacturer to partner up with, all this is just plenty of talk," Lim told Linux Girl. "Microsoft, which probably has the most advanced mobile phone operating system in Windows Phone 7.5, had a very hard time getting manufacturers on-board.

"So even if Canonical builds a better mousetrap, the question is which hardware manufacturer will beat a path to its door," he mused. "Who will be Ubuntu Mobile Nokia?"

An Alternate Path

Will Canonical succeed? "I highly doubt it," Lim opined.

Yet there is also another way it could go, he suggested.

"If I were developing a Linux distribution, I would really just try to create a desktop environment which would look and feel friendly to Android users, integrate the operating system with Google services and try to get Google to divert its Chrome operating system development efforts to Linux," Lim said.

Of course, "I do not think the FOSS community would even consider that for a minute," he added.

'Canonical Doesn't Have a Clue'

All in all, the move "shows yet again that Canonical doesn't have a clue," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told Linux Girl.

With close to 400 MILLION PCs "that are gonna be EOLed in 2014" with the retirement of Windows XP, "are they trying to embrace that market?" hairyfeet asked. "Nope, that would make sense!"

Instead, Canonical is jumping "into an already overcrowded mobile space herp derp!" he said. "All I can figure is these companies like Canonical WANT FOSS to fail."

In short, "chasing rainbows like Canonical is doing will only end in failure," hairyfeet predicted. "We already have iOS and Android, not to mention MSFT throwing money around just trying to buy a slot on the totem pole; what makes Canonical think they can compete with that?"

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

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