Is Ubuntu OS too niche for smartphone and tablet space?

Features Richard Goodwin 17:28, 3 Jan 2013

Can Ubuntu OS for mobile break Apple and Google’s stranglehold over the smartphone and tablet space —— or is it just too niche?

Ubuntu is a well-known name in the world of PCs, providing millions of users worldwide with an open-source alternative to Microsoft’s Windows software. Here Canonical is right at home.

But what about the mobile and tablet space? Here, success is harder to come by and competition is fierce. Not even Microsoft, a company with billions of dollars at its disposal, has managed to make a lasting impression within the space – and it’s been trying for two years now.

But being niche sometimes has its advantages, even in technology. Just look at what Apple has achieved during the past several years – it took a simple idea (iTunes/iOS) and built an ecosystem of devices (iPod, iPhone, and iPad) and services (App Store, iBooks) around it and in fewer than five years became the world’s biggest technology company.  

Google did something similar with its Android platform and accompanying services and is arguably an even bigger player in the mobile space than Apple. Microsoft, spotting a winning formula, has adhered to a similar model with its WP8/Windows RT model, despite the fact it has yet to release a home-brew iPhone/Nexus-style mobile handset.

Android, iOS, and Windows Phone are built around services, but hardware like the Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and, to a lesser extent the Surface RT, is beginning to play an increasingly important role.

And, as key players like Google and Microsoft continue to bring their services and software more and more in house, alternatives like Ubuntu OS, Firefox OS, and Tizen will be required to fill the void. It’s also likely to be considerably cheaper than licensing Android or Windows Phone.

‘The positive line is generally about cutting out royalties for the hardware OEM and with changes of direction from both Microsoft and Google (i.e. heading more towards a complete hardware and software solution) this might give other options to OEMs looking for differentiation,’ said Rob Bamforth of Quocirca.

Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean Ubuntu will have an easy time of it. RIM’s BlackBerry 10 platform launches in Q1 of this year, as will the first Firefox OS-powered handset from ZTE. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Samsung has now confirmed that it will launch the world’s first Tizen-powered smartphone at some point in 2013.

And, after all that, there’s still Windows Phone to contend with. Viewed in this respect Ubuntu OS, along with Firefox and Tizen, has a lot to contend with.

Then there’s the issue of who would buy an Ubuntu OS-powered handset?

At present there are no confirmed OEM partners or network support for the platform or the hardware it will eventually power. Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu’s parent company, Canonical, however, was keen to point out that a number of networks have expressed ‘great interest’ in Ubuntu OS.

‘Here,’ says Bamforth, ‘consumers have a choice: go with Android/iOS/Windows Phone – platforms with established app stores, sets of services, and established relations with OEMS. Or, forget all about that, and choose Ubuntu OS because you like running it on your PC.’

There are currently around seven million users running Ubuntu on their PCs around the world. And even if the company managed to convert every single one of these people into Ubuntu OS smartphone and tablet users, which it won’t, it would still be a nothing more than a drop in the ocean.

Some will come across, of course – those that want to avoid proprietary systems like Apple’s iOS, BlackBerry 10, and Windows Phone 8. Perhaps some consumers, disaffected by Google’s increasingly rigid way of doing things, may seek out more robust, malleable, solutions. Maybe.

‘Ubuntu OS is not a mass-market product. It’s like Raspberry Pi in this respect: people will like playing around with it but it will not replace 99.9 per cent of people’s desktop PCs,’ said Bamforth.

He added: ‘Ubuntu OS will be worthwhile, rewarding, and no doubt lots of fun to play around with. It may even attract a body of dedicated developers and content publishers. But it will still be very niche compared to the Android, iOS, and BlackBerry 10s of the world.’

And that will make it a far too limiting experience for 99.9 per cent of consumers.

Canonical founder Shuttleworth says that Ubuntu OS is aimed at two distinct types of user: the first, people that want a basic phone experience, just calls, texts, and a bit of browsing, and, secondly, users that want a ‘superphone’ experience, one where they can get the full-power of their PC on a mobile device.

Shuttleworth is confident that the future of mobile will be all about having a superphone, one that lets you plug in a keyboard and mouse and use like a PC. This is Canonical’s Ubuntu OS-shaped hole in the market, apparently.

It’s also something Google, Apple and Microsoft have all ruled out.

‘The argument about same platform on all devices (TV, computer, mobile, car, fridge etc.) was initially tried a long time ago with Java, as well as more recently with Android. But in reality it just doesn’t work,’ said Bamforth.

He added: ‘It’s more important having some devices that are small and cheap rather than smart, that’s just a fact of life. And it explains why things like AirPlay, Twonky, and SmartGlass have become increasingly popular of late.’

And yet despite all this, Canonical’s version for the mobile space cannot be faulted. Ubuntu OS looks utterly gorgeous and will no doubt get a lot of care and attention from the platform’s dedicated base of existent developers.

They’ll also be big name applications and games from big name publishers, according to Shuttleworth. But it’ll still won’t be even in the mobile space because being good just isn’t good enough – you need marketing, more marketing, an endless stream of apps and content, excellent hardware, and even then success isn’t guaranteed – Microsoft, we’re looking at you.

As of Q1 2013, Ubuntu OS has no OEM partners and no confirmed network partners. Going forwards, Canonical will need to secure deals with key players in the mobile space and lure big brand developers across to the platform. The first handsets running the Ubuntu OS will appear in 2014.

It’s always good to see a new entrant to the mobile space, even more so when it’s one as innovative as Ubuntu. However we can’t help seeing this OS, when compared to Android, iOS, and BlackBerry 10, as little more than a pet project for a few niche developers.

The Barriers to entry are so large in the mobile space and the business has evolved at such a rate since 2007 that it’s difficult to see how anyone – bar, of course, the usual suspects – could come in and really shake things up like Apple and Google did back in the mid-to-late-2000s.

Still, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to see Ubuntu OS, or, perhaps Tizen or Firefox OS, have a pop at the current champs, Apple and Google. It’d be brilliant and perhaps one of the ultimate underdog stories of all time…

Looking at the mobile space at present, however, paints a very different picture. 2013’s mobile market is locked down across the board. Entry is protected and success is measured by the quality of your hardware, services, and the reach and breadth of your marketing campaigns.

We can’t see Ubuntu OS going this route. That’s why it’ll be too niche to compete with the big boys and will never replace Android or iOS. But that’s not to say it’ll be bad –– far from it. It looks great and we can’t wait to try it out.

2013 is going to see a lot of cool developments in the truly open-source OS market, starting with Firefox OS later this quarter and finishing with Tizen and Ubuntu OS.

Sponsored Links