Adrian Covert of CNN Money did a good story on Ubuntu phones where he screamed from the top of a mountain “The Ubuntu smartphone (which no one will use) is a glimpse of the future”. I, who doesn’t always agree with Canonical, think that Covert is way off mark here. Covert rejects any potential Canonical’s convergence model has,, where a docked phone can convert a dumb monitor into a full-fledged PC. He gives the example of failed Motorola and equally doomed Windows 8.
I totally agree with Covert when he says, “This concept isn’t entirely new, as Canonical revealed similar plans last year to attach its desktop software to devices running Android. Before that, Motorola tried to turn Android phones in to laptops with its Atrix line of phones and docks.”
While Motorola did introduce the concept of the docked device (before Canonical, to set the record straight), they did not have a fully-fledged OS to offer the complete PC experience. Canonical has it – Ubuntu on desktop is a full-fledged OS which can turn your dumb monitor into a PC. So, they do actually have some ‘expertise’ in the convergence space. The question is, who needs this kind of convergence. Not in homes. Almost everyone in my circle now uses a tablet or a phone as the primary ‘PC’, while their laptops or desktops collect dust.
Things change in the enterprise space and developing countries. This convergence model holds great potential in the BYOD scenario where all you have is monitors on the desks and anyone can connect their smartphone, access the cloud services and continue to work. Google already has it with its Chrome and they are also offering some kind of convergence between Chrome OS and Android.
One area where this convergence may work in homes also, is the fact that Canonical has its offerings for all 4 screens that make over lives — TV, smartphones, tablets and PCs. They have Ubuntu TV, Ubuntu desktop, Ubuntu phone has been announced and tablet is already in works. Ubuntu One chimes in nicely to sync data across all these devices.
The reason why Covert thinks it won’t work is because “But no one — not even Microsoft — has attempted to serve up its own phone OS and desktop OS in a single package.” No one not even Microsoft ever attempted to create a ‘tablet’ without any keyboard. Apple did it and it worked. So, just because someone never attempted anything before doesn’t mean it won’t work. Microsoft is a bad example here as this is the company which never believed in the ‘Internet.’
If you can serve tablet and smartphone in one package why not desktop?
Then he moves on to say that the reason no one will use it because, “Realistically speaking, the chances of this even upstaging Windows Phone or BlackBerry 10 are slim. At best, Ubuntu seems like a sandbox for the most enthusiastic early adopters and a cheap enterprise solution for companies on a tight budget.”
Ubuntu seems like a sandbox for the most enthusiastic early adopters
It’s a luxury to have enthusiastic early adopters, ask Apple and you will know what made iPad and iPhone such huge success. There is a huge Ubuntu fanbase, akin to Apple, which is ready to throw their money on anything that has the Ubuntu logo on it. They worship Mark Shuttleworth as their Steve Jobs. The arrival of Steam on Linux has a lot to do with the huge response it got from Linux users, and these were passionate and crazy Ubuntu fans. OMG! Ubuntu is far more popular than any Windows blog, there has to be a reason – loyalty. Looking at this fan-base Ubuntu phone ‘will have quite a lot of users’ contrary to what Covert alleges in his headline and that number won’t be small.
a cheap enterprise solution for companies on a tight budget
Mr Covert, show me a single company which wants super-expensive solutions and is on a loose budget and I will show a company ready to file for bankruptcy. Companies need to keep the cost low, that’s the reason salesmen talk about ‘lower’ TCO. So, I think by having a ‘cheap enterprise solution for companies on a tight budget’ Canonical has even more reasons to succeed.
Realistically speaking, the chances of this even upstaging Windows Phone or BlackBerry 10 are slim.
How hard is it to upset two losing players? Canonical has already dented Microsoft where it should hurt the most. Microsoft is was a monopoly in the PC space and killed every possible competitor. Canonical not only survived but also thrived. Microsoft has already seen it’s first defeat to Ubuntu, and it’s just the beginning. It was Ubuntu that enabled Valve to ditch Windows and focus on Linux. Luckily its not 1990 anymore and Microsoft today has less (though still substantial in the PC hardware space) control. But mobile space is a different ballgame where Microsoft is a distant ¾ player. I don’t see why Canonical won’t succeed where both Microsoft and RIM have failed.
However, that doesn’t mean its a smooth sail for Canonical.
Some real challenges
There are some real challenges for Canonical with their mobile ambitions – hardware vendors, carriers, app ecosystem, patents and competition. Unlike PC where you can buy a commodity hardware and put your OS on it (even that market is very tiny and losing out to Apple and Google), smartphones are a different ballgame. It needs a hardware vendor who can put decent hardware and push it to the market. Look at the current smartphone market, only Samsung seems to be the one riding the success of Android. Google invested heavily in creating a very strong partnership with hardware players, carriers and other vendors before pushing Android. Canonical has not done that yet. So, who is going to put Ubuntu on their hardware? It does need Samsungs, HTCs and the LGs of the mobile world to succeed in this space.
Most people buy smartphones from brick and mortar carrier shop and they decide the success and failure of any device. At the moment Canonical doesn’t have any carrier deals. Since Canonical will allow carriers or OEMs to fully customize Ubuntu, how much control carriers would want over Ubuntu Phone, will decide the Ubuntu experience. It could very well be more locked down than the iPhone. sudo apt-get update may not even work. So, finding the carrier who would push Ubuntu is yet another huge challenge.
There are no apps for Ubuntu for Phone at the moment. Canonical did make a smart move and created shortcuts like Google Chrome and called them web-apps, but the fact is they are just independent windows of Firefox running some site. It’s not native apps. Don’t expect current desktop apps to just run on Ubuntu. Even if they do, they will be less than useless. Imagine opening the desktop edition of LibreOffice on the tiny screen of Ubuntu Phone and getting some work done, same applies to apps like GIMP or digiKam. Canonical needs developers to create apps for Ubuntu Phone. Looking at how hard it is even for companies like Microsoft (or RIM) with deep pockets and influence to get decent apps for their platforms, this is another huge challenge for Canonical.
Microsoft is the first company which will come after Canonical, purely by natural instinct. They would force Canonical to sign some patent deals with the company to cover bogus ‘Android’ and ‘Linux’ patents. I very much doubt Canonical would challenge Microsoft in court and may have to succumb to the pressure. Then there is Nokia who won’t miss to attack Canonical. Last but not least is Apple, who will go to any extent to break Canonical if it emerges as a threat. How Canonical will steer clear of these attacks is yet another challenge.
The current mobile landscape is dominated by Google and Apple with everyone else — including RIM & Microsoft struggling for the distant 3rd spot. Then we have heavyweight Mozilla with its own HTML5 based Firefox OS, not much behind is Jolla trying to revive MeeGo and Intel with its Moblin ambitions which have transformed into Tizen. Amazon is also working on its smartphone, according to reports. Most of these players have much more experience than Canonical in the mobile space so where does this new player stand in this extremely crowded and competitive market, which depends on so many external elements?
So, while Covert’s claim that ‘no one will use Ubuntu’ is unfounded and Ubuntu phone is extremely promising, Canonical does have some real challenges at hand. They are new to this segment, but they can learn fast. Once they master the art of dealing with the above challenge, Ubuntu will stand next to Android as a leading force (as a cousin and not competitor) to make open source the leading force in the world.
So, I don’t really think that Covert was right. There will be people who will use Ubuntu Phone, trust me. Only if Canonical can pull it all together well. I think they will. Sooner or later.