Ubuntu’s Merry Mobile Machinations

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.

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, andPCWorld 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+.


  • I’d like to be optimistic about Ubuntu for Phones – I like the idea of having one operating system expanding vertically from my phone to my servers – but I’m not sure if Canonical has the traction to pull it off; we are, after all, still waiting for both Ubuntu for Android and Ubuntu for TVs, neither of which has resulted in much more than an announcement and a couple demo videos.

    Plus, I can’t stand Unity, especially with its badly-thought-out means of implementing Amazon searches, so that turns me off; I’d rather go with a different Ubuntu flavor (like Kubuntu, which when combined with Plasma Active would actually make for a really slick mobile/desktop combo) or another distro entirely.

    • Sadly its not gonna happen friend because the future is consoles all the way down. What do I mean by that? A locked black box that runs a locked OS that has a locked appstore as its only source of programs, that’s what.

      We are seeing this happen all over the place, Google locking down their ChromeBooks so tight you have to practically jump through flaming hoops just to install something else on what is bog standard x86 hardware, you have MSFT getting into the hardware business so they can sell MSFT hardware locked to a MSFT OS that goes to a MSFT appstore, and of course they are all taking it from Apple who were the trendsetter when it comes to black boxes and made a mint. Even Valve is getting in on it with the Steambox, probably because they realize that MSFT is gonna lock the hardware down so badly it might as well be a console.

      I truly believe that we geeks are gonna look back upon today with a tear in our eye, this will be "the last of the golden age" of open hardware you could install what you wanted on to, it’ll all be replaced in less than 3 years with nothing but black boxes, from our phones to our tablets to our desktops. The worst part is the consumers will love it, because their devices will be as predictable as a remote control and just as simple to operate.

      • All too true. Folks like us are a minority, and therefore are not as profitable a market as the run-of-the-mill end-user.

        It’ll eventually get to the point where we’ll have to create our own market for open and customizable hardware. I don’t think this will be a terrible problem in and of itself; the Raspberry Pi has been a flagship product for the idea of tiny, cheap, DIY-friendly electronics, and I at least have some hope that the DIY culture can stave off the trend of locking down every little thing about one’s hardware. Perhaps we ought to start looking into build-it-yourself laptops and smartphones? The technology’s there, though the economy of scale would be an issue.

        • The problem is ALL you will get is weak sauce chips like the Pi, any real performance will be locked behind a paywall. look at how intel is talking about soldering the CPU and the RAM straight to the board. if you need more than what you got? tough, buy a new one. I have been buying AMD exclusively for the past 5 years when it came out about Intel playing dirty but now it looks like AMD may end up moving away from X86 so for those of us that need actual performance we frankly won’t get a choice, its either a console or bend over and buy a workstation class unit at workstation prices.

          Its a shame, as I said we’ll look back upon this as the last gasps of a golden age, but Joe and Sally Average don’t care, to them they only care about having devices as simple as a toaster to use. its just a shame that like a toaster it’ll also be disposable.

          • I’m personally quite alright with workstation-class hardware; it tends to be pretty reliable and powerful. But you’re right; Intel is certainly going to try to lock users into an upgrade treadmill, and there’s not much we can do beyond choosing a different vendor like… well, no one really, if AMD pulls out of the x86 space. There’s VIA, but that’s like buying a Smartcar when you need a pickup truck.

            Normally this is where I’d point out that I’m a RISC fan and would be fine with desktop-grade ARM chips (or another RISC architecture like SPARC or PowerPC), but I’m not optimistic about those being made in a way that us geeks and power users can use without stepping onto the upgrade treadmill and sweating out all our hard-earned money; SPARC and PowerPC are virtually dead in the desktop/workstation world (different story in the server world, but that’s not really relevant to desktop use, and said servers are expensive as hell), and ARM is being targeted toward mobile and *maybe* some server use.

            DIY-type kits are probably going to be the last hope, and as you said, there’s not really much performance-wise to be offered there right now. It’s possible for some geek to get fed up with the situation and develop his/her own hardware, but we’d be lacking the scale of economy.

          • The problem is the ONLY open chip we have is ARM which we have seen simply can’t scale. Nvidia has spent millions of dollars on ARM R&D and the only thing they have been able to do is bolt more cores but we have seen it is ultimately a losing game as it becomes harder and harder to scale a program across more and more cores, Tegra is now up to 5 cores and frankly a Cedar Mill P4 will stomp it in performance, that chip is what? Nearly 8 years old now?

            So i think the next 10 years are gonna be a seriously dark time for PC builders and those that want to actually use their hardware in ways not approved by mommy corporation. AMD only has 2 more revs to go then the Bulldozer, which frankly was a bad design choice in the first place, will be out of gains from die shrinks and since the previous CEO fired the entire engineering crew its doubtful they even have a replacement in the works. That means most likely they will simply jump on the ARM bandwagon, making AMD no more useful for performance than your average cellphone…which leaves Intel all alone.

            Its gonna be a bad time, with locked UEFI booting a locked OS that only gets programs from a locked appstore. Its ironic that RMS for years complained and whined about MSFT when it turns out the enemy? he is us. All those people that stood in line to get Apple products have chosen for us, and they have chosen poorly. Even Google, which so many in FOSS defended, has jumped on board so that in less than 4 years EVERY device you get will be a console.

            But if I were you I wouldn’t be too comfortable with workstations, what keeps the cost of workstations down is the fact they use bog standard chips and if Intel switches to soldering chips the price of workstation will go WAY up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a workstation that goes for $1000 today cost $5000 4 years from now. Most corps will just accept the upgrade treadmill forced upon them by Intel and simply buy high end consumer, which means workstation will be a little niche with niche pricing. Its gonna be a lousy time all around.

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