You are probably already familiar with the term ‘Ubuntu’. Ubuntu is the most popular and widely used of all the Linux distributions on personal computers. Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, hope to achieve the same feat on mobile and in the beginning of the year they unveiled Ubuntu for Smartphones. A few weeks later, they announced Ubuntu for Tablets. Take this as Canonical’s assault on the mobile market. While the number of computers that run Linux in the hands of consumers, leave alone Ubuntu as a distro, is relatively low, things are not similar on mobile. Another Linux-based mobile OS, Android has been very successful and I guess Canonical is banking on the dynamics of the mobile market to push through Ubuntu.
What is it that Ubuntu will do differently that existing mobile OSs don’t do already?
A lot. To start with, unlike Android, iOS and the others, it doesn’t rely on capacitive/soft buttons or physical buttons. It relies on users just swiping from the edges to perform a variety of tasks. While this was a first when it was demoed early in the year, I have seen something distantly similar in the new BB 10 OS.
Ubuntu will have support for native apps as well as web-based apps. The native apps will be just like we them know today, built from the ground up by developers to run on devices with Ubuntu while the web apps will be a departure from what we are used to. The web apps on mobile devices running Ubuntu will not be browser-reliant. They’ll be able to continue running even when the main browser is closed. It is worth noting that there is also a letdown as far as this mobile OS is concerned. Ubuntu will not support Dalvik. Dalvik is the JVM (Java Virtual Machine) of Android. This means that it will not be possible to port Android applications to Ubuntu. If you remember well the ability to port Android apps is what Blackberry is banking on to drive increased adoption of its new Blackberry 10 OS.
Since it is based on Linux, Canonical promises never-seen-before levels of customization to OEMs who will also pass this on to the user.
Device convergence. Canonical is much more interested in encouraging users of its mobile OS to also tie-in to its computer offering, Ubuntu. As such, it will make it for device convergence i.e one can dock the mobile device to a monitor and a keyboard and easily convert the little monster into a fully-fledged desktop computer. This is touted as one of the strengths of Ubuntu for smartphones and tablets since there is a “very deep level of integration between the services on the phone and the desktop”.
A developer preview of this mobile OS was released in late February and demoed at MWC. This means you are yet to hear the last of it yet, in fact they are just getting started.
Ubuntu also targets both the high end market segment and the low end market with device requirements for OEMs Canonical will be partnering with being a minimum of 512 MB RAM and 1G RAM for the low end and high end respectively. The processor will have to be clocked way above 1 GHz. Despite these specs not being what the spec-crazy consumers will be obsessed about, they are measures of intent, the intention to get Ubuntu in the hands of everybody.
Now that we know a bit about it, does it stand a chance? Yes. If it will focus on the right markets and get some great devices and make as many of those carrier agreements as it can make, Canonical can surely make Ubuntu a contender for the best mobile OS in a few years despite the competition. It just has to stand out, something I have no doubt of after seeing Ubuntu for Android demoed on the Galaxy Nexus. With edge swipes, desktop convergence, being open source, a new UI and a promise for faster OS updates, Ubuntu stands a chance of making it if given the chance. Of course newer versions of Android and iOS will soon come out that will be hard for diehards (sorry, fanboys) and newbies to resist but it is what makes Ubuntu stand out that will people over. Oh, and serious marketing too. Penetrating markets where consumers are just starting the switch to smartphones is not the same as winning the hearts of consumers in already saturated smartphone markets and the less than 2% of the global population who use Linux on their computers (a large number of whom use Ubuntu to be specific).
Smartphones running Ubuntu are expected in October of this year. Until then, we can only hope that all will be well since competition only serves to make the platforms stronger and better.
NB: 7 weeks after Ubuntu for Smartphones was launched, Canonical announced that with the release of its version of the mobile OS for tablets, the mobile OS will simply be referred to as Ubuntu Touch. As such, all that I have referred to in here is Ubuntu Touch only that I cared to use its earlier names so as to create a distinction for better analysis.