Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, startled the tech world today by announcing a new Linux-based operating system for phones. Ubuntu for Phones, along with the previously announced Ubuntu for Android puts full desktop applications onto smartphones, finally making full use of those beefy quad-core processors we're seeing in gadgets like the LG Optimus G. This is a great idea.
The problem is, phone OSes don't exist in a vacuum. As we all should have learned from the WebOS disaster, they're desperately dependent on being pre-loaded onto compelling hardware and sold by enthusiastic carriers. In my experience, organizations that have cut their teeth in the open-source realm have trouble making those hardware deals and delivering products on time.
Let's take two examples here: Firefox OS (aka Boot to Gecko) and LiMo. They both have something to teach us. Firefox OS is a lot like Ubuntu, in that it's the mobile extension of a beloved free desktop product. But although several carriers "signed on" with Firefox, the company has been unable to summon a device.
Firefox and Ubuntu also seem to be suffering from some very long development cycles. A phone version of Ubuntu was first pre-announced in October 2011, with an arrival date said to be in 2014. Firefox OS has had a similarly long gestation, first announced in July 2011 and still pre-loaded on zero phones. Since then, Google and Apple have revved their OSes several times. If that's the speed that Firefox and Ubtuntu are going to work at, they'll be left in the dust.
LiMo had even more backers and even bigger plans, and a few LiMo phones did hit the market in 2009. But without real enthusiasm from manufacturers, the platform never hit critical mass. Eventually, Samsung decided to shift its in-house OS efforts from bada to what was formerly LiMo, now Tizen. If Tizen has a chance, it's not because of its open-source roots, but because of its bada side: it's giant Samsung's hedge against Google's influence by building its own in-house platform.
Let's also note that Firefox and LiMo ended up having to sell themselves as something that free-software advocates would abhor. Because OEMs and carriers control the mobile market, they presented themselves as hyper-customizable for OEMs and carriers, not for users. The point here was freeing carriers from Google and Apple, not freeing users from their carriers.
"OEMs and operators â¦ will be able to customize user experiences, manage app distribution and retain customer attention, loyalty and billing relationships," the Firefox OS site says.
That might sound compelling to some OEMs, but so far, it doesn't look like it has sounded compelling enough.
Manufacturer Endorsements Aren't Enough
It's not just enough to have some manufacturers give you a good press release quote, either. (See: LiMo.) For your mobile OS to succeed, it needs to become the primary choice of major manufacturers and carriers.
This is one reason Windows Phone 8 is struggling. Windows Phone's major market advantage is Nokia's enthusiasm. Yes, Samsung and HTC are on board, but HTC's attention is split between Windows Phone and Android, and for Samsung, Windows Phone seems to look like an afterthought.
The conventional wisdom in the mobile world right now is that we need fewer platforms, not more. The big debate I'm hearing is over which three platforms will survive, not more. There's no room and no desire among manufacturers or carriers for additional new players, and developers aren't looking to write new versions of apps for another small market.
None of this is a judgement on the ideas contained in these OSes. Take Ubuntu for Android. I love this idea; for a while, I thought it was the future of computing, to have one CPU that is sometimes mobile and sometimes snaps into a cradle to function as your desktop PC. But the failure of Motorola's very similar Webtop shows that I may have been the only person to harbor that dream.
Ubuntu is a beloved desktop OS, but it's very niche, and it specializes almost entirely in geeks. That just isn't a business model in mobile. While there's a small, brave group of people who surf xda-developers and reflash their Androids, you're not going to get most consumers installing third-party OSes on their phones (if they're even allowed to do so.)
That means for Ubuntu's mobile moves to make any sense, it needs to hit critical mass by becoming the main choice of manufacturers with significant market share. I haven't seen any sign that's happening, so I don't see much chance for this OS right now.
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