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Ubuntu's Merry Mobile Machinations

By Katherine Noyes
Jan 7, 2013 5:00 AM PT

The Linux community may not exactly be known for its glitzy launch events, but last week saw one the likes of which has rarely -- if ever -- been seen in these parts before.

Ubuntu's Merry Mobile Machinations

Splashier even than the blogosphere's New Year's Eve festivities, most agreed, the Ubuntu for phones announcement on Wednesday might well have been a Cupertino production, so loud were the trumpets and fanfare, and so elaborately choreographed the various pieces.

Linux bloggers had gotten carefully placed word ahead of time that "disruptive" news was on the way, of course, so speculation had naturally been running wild for some time.

Now that we have the official news, are bloggers thrilled? Will Ubuntu for phones change the mobile world as we know it? That, it turns out, depends very much on who you ask.

CNN, TechCrunch, the Verge, and PCWorld have all expressed doubt.

Linux Girl headed to the blogosphere's main downtown to take the pulse of the blogging masses.

'They Could Have a Solid Product'

"This move by Canonical was far from unexpected, but based on what little I saw of the phone version of Ubuntu, it looks like they could have a solid product," began Google+ blogger Linux Rants. "They could have succeeded where Microsoft failed and created an interface almost entirely different from the more traditional icon-driven interface and have that interface not suck."

Of course, the effort's success will depend on support from hardware manufacturers, app developers, carriers and consumers, Linux Rants pointed out.

"Canonical could hugely bolster their chances for success by following in the footsteps of RIM and including the capability of running Android apps in the OS," he suggested. "Ubuntu native applications would run faster and more smoothly, but that would solve the app problem out of the gate."

'I Wish They'd Have Waited'

In any case, "I'm not a fan of how early they've announced it and how long the customer is going to have to wait to get their hands on a device," Linux Rants added. "That's something we've already seen companies like HP pay dearly for.

"I wish they'd have waited until they had a completed product, some app developers on board, hardware manufacturers with devices already ready, and carriers willing to use them," he explained.

"Maybe that's asking a lot, but I worry that a product that could be a very good option for a lot of people will suffer because it was announced too soon," he concluded.

'How Does Canonical Get Traction?'

"I don't begrudge Canonical the attempt, and quite possibly this will bring good things to the ecosystem of mobile," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien agreed. "More competition is frequently a good thing."

At the same time, "I have my doubts as to whether there is room in the marketplace for yet another mobile OS," O'Brien added. "Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 has gotten good reviews, but I don't think anyone is rushing to buy the phones.

"So how does Canonical get traction here?" he wondered.

'Ubuntu Is Playing Catch-Up'

"Surely there must be a better way forward than to replicate Microsoft's mistake of trying to shoehorn the same interface onto tablets and desktops," suggested Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza.

"Ubuntu is playing catch-up to Android, poorly," Espinoza opined. "Perhaps in three or four more revisions their interface will be as good as Android's has been for years."

Indeed, "I wish Ubuntu would leave the phone alone," offered consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. "I know the desktop is not cool, but some of us still need a working desktop, and no, we do not need it to be touch-centric.

"Attempting to claw into the already crowded market is just a waste of time," Mack concluded.

Similarly, "I am very old fashioned and still think my computer is and should remain something different from my phone," Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. said. "See, outside the Manhattan island it is hard to make your phone make a call; imagine me trying to view Web pages and edit spreadsheets online in South America!!"

'I See the Same Problem'

Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, said he has "no doubt Canonical can make a good phone operating system. The problem really is who is going to build a phone with Ubuntu Phone on board?

"If you get some manufacturer to actually use Ubuntu Phone, its success will depend on getting a 100,000- to 200,000-app store up and running as quickly as possible," he told Linux Girl.

"Linux's weakness has never been the operating system, but getting it pre-installed on hardware and the absence of apps," he suggested. "I see the same problem for Ubuntu Phone."

'There Seem to Be No Takers'

Then, too, there's the question of demand, Lim pointed out.

"The most interesting feature that Ubuntu Phone brings is the ability to plug it into a laptop dock or monitor and keyboard and run the full x86 PC version of Ubuntu," he explained. "But how many people really want to run Ubuntu? Canonical has been offering this under its Ubuntu for Android project for nearly a year, and there seem to be no takers.

"If an Android phone with an Ubuntu desktop operating system inside has no demand, why would an Ubuntu phone with an Ubuntu desktop operating system inside fare any better?" he asked.

In short, "the mobile phone operating system market seems a bit too crowded," Lim opined. "Instead of focusing on a new mobile operating system, Canonical should spend their time and money launching an actual Ubuntu Phone -- you know, some hardware: a nice mid-level quad core device powered by Android 4.2 with Ubuntu 12.10 on board."

'The Buzzword Bandwagon'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took it even further.

"Give it up, stick a fork, Canonical is done," hairyfeet told Linux Girl. "Here is a perfect example of 'no positive indicators,' yet the company is going full stupid ahead on the buzzword bandwagon."

After all, "what sells phones and tablets? Apps," hairyfeet pointed out. "What does Ubuntu not have? You guessed it. The VAST majority of the big apps are NOT FOSS, so you can't just recompile them.

"Look at the billion plus that MSFT has thrown away basically paying for the porting of the most popular apps, yet they STILL can't get any traction, because Apple and Google have 10,000 apps to every one at MSFT's app store," he added.

"Final prediction? Canonical dead in 2, MSFT dead in 5," hairyfeet concluded.

'It Can Do Anything'

Blogger Robert Pogson, however, wasn't so sure.

"GNU/Linux has proven it can do anything," Pogson pointed out.

"The challenge that Canonical has accepted is to have one OS serve anywhere from a single build," he noted. "It's not clear that this is technically superior to having multiple specialized versions except that incompatibilities should be hard to create."

The biggest challenge, however, "is not the technology, but trying to make any dent in Android/Linux's huge lead with developers, OEMs, retailers and consumers," Pogson added. "Replacing XP, '7' and '8' on PCs is a much easier goal as Wintel crumbles under its weight."

'It's the Right Thing to Do'

Still, "Canonical should do this even if it only brings in a little revenue," he opined. "It's about time Ubuntu GNU/Linux became commercial in every sense. If embracing mobile helps the goal be achieved, it's the right thing to do. Once GNU/Linux takes some share of mobile, it will be much easier to convince OEMs, retailers and consumers to move GNU/Linux everywhere."

Besides, "GNU/Linux should have an edge over Android/Linux in performance because native code should run faster than interpreted code," he pointed out. "That can either be used to reduce cost by requiring fewer cores, to reduce power consumption or to increase the quantity of software available."

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 and Google+.

Has technology made transportation more or less safe?
Traveling by all modes of transportation has become riskier with each passing year.
In general, transportation safety has been improving steadily, despite some failures.
Some modes of transportation have been improving while others have become less safe.
We may have reached a tipping point where more tech means less safety.
Don't blame the tech -- greedy companies haven't done adequate testing.
Government regulators have not been playing a strong enough oversight role.
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