Can Ubuntu smartphones steal Android's thunder?

Summary:Is there a place for Ubuntu Linux in the smartphone market. Or is Canonical's entry too little, too late?

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Yes

or

No

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Best Argument: Yes

57%
43%

Audience Favored: Yes (57%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Mobile Ubuntu can steal Android's thunder

Android is undoubtedly the mobile OS to beat in 2013. iOS has loyal fans, but it simply can't achieve Android's volume driven by multiple OEMs producing phones and tablets in countless form factors.

That said, Android has problems. Big ones. The first is Google itself. If you don't opt in to at least a substantial subset of Google's services, you can forget using an Android device. The second is ongoing patent issues, both for Android and manufacturers that use it. Finally, both Apple and Microsoft are ahead of Google in terms of enterprise management and deployment

Ubuntu can address all of these issues on mobile devices, bringing a platform which is at once trusted in the enterprise, unencumbered by patent and privacy issues, and still more open than Android.

Will mobile Ubuntu kill Android? No. Can it steal its thunder, though, and put a squeeze on Google, especially in the enterprise? Yes indeed.

Ubuntu on the smartphone? Too little, too late.

I like Ubuntu. I like the idea of Ubuntu on a smartphone . I don't think they can pull it off.

Why? Let me count the ways:

1) Canonical is too late to the game. Android and iOS already own the smartphone market. Microsoft despite its billions still hasn't been able to get Windows Phone 8 off the ground.

2) The Ubuntu team doesn't know carriers. RIM, Samsung, Apple, etc. all have existing company relationships. Canonical doesn't. Period. End of statement.

3) Canonical has strong PC OEMs relationships, but they don't have strong partnerships with handset manufacturers. Sure, if all you want is hobbyists, you don't need OEMs, but they want a mass market.

4) They're also starting from near zero on handset developers. The best and brightest mobile programmers are already hard at work building Android and iOS applications.

I like the idea of what Ubuntu wants to do. They want one operating system and one interface for smartphones, tablets, PCs, and TVs. Yea them!

Unlike Microsoft, which badly stumbled with Windows 8's Metro interface, I think Ubuntu's Unity interface might just be able to be that do everything on every platform interface. But, even if Canonical does pull off the technical magic, I just don't see how they can beat all the business factors lined up against them.

I'd like to be wrong, but I don't think I am.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome all

    Are the debaters ready?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Born ready

    Bring it on...

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Ready here from CES

    As long as my connection holds...

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Getting the right fit

    One of the intriguing things about Ubuntu for smartphones is that it's targeted at entry level smartphones -- think emerging markets. Is there room for another player?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Of course!

    Android has done a great job with market differentiation, but overall is moving upmarket with bigger, faster phones, especially now that iPhone 5 has a larger screen and great graphics. There is also still a dearth of entry-level tablets, whether for emerging markets or schools. This is an area where Ubuntu could really shine. Look at the overwhelming success of the Raspberry Pi - Ubuntu-powered phones and tablets on the cheap could find a huge audience of geeks, students, educators, parents, and users in emerging markets.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Many low-end Android vendors have it covered

    Sure Android may have 75% of the smartphone market , but the overall market is continuing to grow and low-end smartphones are continuing to be popular. After all, even in the West not everyone can shell out a couple of hundred bucks for a phone.

    So, sure an inexpensive Ubuntu phone may find a market, but while Apple is never going to offer discount gear, there are many low-end Android vendors already eagerly selling phones to the same audience.

    On the high-end, Ubuntu has a unique feature: You can use it both as a phone and to power up a desktop, but on the low end.... it looks to me like Android will stay the winner.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    No big names

    Has Canonical undermined its mobile launch by not including any named hardware or carrier partners?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No

    The OEM/Android/Google relationship has actually been one of the largest challenges for Google. What carriers does a particular Android phone run on? How will updates be handled? What software version will ship? The list goes on. What Ubuntu did, instead of launching with specific OEMs (which they will actually show at CES) is throw down the gauntlet and put OEMs, as well, potentially, as third-party partners who want to begin distributing hardware that has Ubuntu installed. It's easy to imagine an independent reseller purchasing a large volume of inexpensive tablets and replacing older versions of Android with the latest and greatest mobile Ubuntu, then reselling to schools or other organizations.

    What Ubuntu didn't do (and should have) was release instructions and easy mechanisms for installing Ubuntu on existing tablets and unlocked phones.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    This was a big-time blunder.

    I'd predicted that this time they'd name a hardware or carrier partner . They didn't.

    Instead we just heard about deals in the work. Fair enough, but they were talking about hardware partners for Ubuntu for Android last February and Ubuntu TV ) in January 2012. Come on! When it comes to phones, tablets and TVs without a hardware partners, all this is vaporware no matter how good your software may be.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are developers attracted?

    Can Ubuntu realistically match Android's developer momentum? No. That was an easy one. Do I think Ubuntu will get developers?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No, but they don't need to.

    We're not talking about taking on Android head on and winning here. We're talking about "stealing thunder" or, put another way, disrupting the market. Keep in mind, though, that Ubuntu already has a huge, active developer community and released a powerful SDK for adapting HTML5 web apps to Ubuntu native apps. Those same web apps also have the potential for far deeper integration with the OS than is available from competitors and Ubuntu is pushing the idea of developing once for the entire desktop/server/mobile ecosystem.

    Again, this can happen with both HTML5 and native applications that support QML and can be written in C or C++, making the environment extremely accessible to a massive base of programmers with C experience.

    So even if Ubuntu can't match Android momentum, it has a few aces in the hole for leveraging existing resources, talent, code, and community.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Sure.

    They have a large desktop developer community and I know some disgruntled Android programmers are eager to get to work, but to go from a dead stop to Android's 70 MPH+ within a year? Or, even two? I can't see it.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    App store needed?

    How important is an app store for Ubuntu?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Ubuntu has had an "App Store" for years...

    ... it's called the Software Center and is a front end to thousands of powerful applications available freely (and, more recently, for a price in some cases). These are largely FOSS applications developed by the community and by organizations.

    Easy access to apps is important for Ubuntu, but not like it is in the race for apps in which Apple and Google are engaged. Ubuntu needs to give users access to the basics, to educational apps, to music/video, and to geeky developer apps, all of which they have in droves and which should port to mobile very well.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Ubuntu has this covered

    The Ubuntu Apps Directory has been out for over a year now and it works quite well. This is one advantage Ubuntu will have over the other would-be third party mobile OS vendors such as Tizen and Vivaldi, Ubuntu's got the app store angle covered.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The power of HTML 5

    Can Ubuntu effectively use HTML5 to bridge any app gaps?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Yes, very much so.

    This is an area where both Android and iOS have promised great things but haven't delivered. HTML5 still isn't the be all to end all, but it's maturing rapidly and Adobe and many other software vendors are releasing increasingly rich HTML5 authoring tools. Ubuntu has the opportunity to take the lead in this, eschewing the apps race for a forward-looking, web-centered approach to a mobile OS.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    I don't see why not.

    While native applications may run faster, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth thinks those will run faster than Android's Dalvik apps . HTML5 apps may yet find a home. As Christopher points out, it's not like either Android or iOS has done much with this area.

    What I don't see, however, is great HTML5 support being a killer app in and of itself.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    To button up -- or not?

    Ubuntu's UI downplays the use of buttons and uses the edges of a screen much like Windows 8. Can this UI work for tech buyers?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Absolutely

    Overall, the Windows 8 UI has been well-received and full-screen viewing of apps, video, and the web, uncluttered by buttons and icons, is rarely a bad thing. Especially on lower-end phones and tablets more likely to run at low resolution and feature smaller screens, the edge functionality is a great use of space. The first time users encounter Unity, they tend to think tablet/touch - it's been designed from the ground up with this outcome in mind.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    I think so...

    ...because Ubuntu has been teaching its users for over two years now to use this interface. Metro came as a shock to many Windows users. Besides, Ubuntu's interface is much easier to use and more consistent than Metro's rather confusing mis-mosh of an interface.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Getting ready for the enterprise

    Part of Ubuntu's core mobile pitch is that it will work well in the enterprise. Do you agree that Ubuntu's mobile OS will serve as a hub for thin clients?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Yes

    It's designed to be docked and provide thin-client functionality or a full desktop experience when it isn't in the palm of a hand. This eases management, deployment, and asset issues for enterprises. As mobile performance advances, Ubuntu will be positioned at least as well as Windows 8 phones and tablets for use in the enterprise. Additionally, it's increasingly effective to deploy Windows and Linux desktops via the cloud, making a phone/thin client/desktop all-in-one device quite attractive for business customers.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    This is actually I think it's best feature.

    I like the idea, and I think users will too, of having the equivalent of a laptop computer in their pocket. Sure, you'll still need the keyboard and display to make the most of it, but they're everywhere. We're already seeing tablets with Bluetooth keyboards and docking stations take off in business, why not take it a step farther with a smartphone?

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Would it be a price buster?

    If successful do you expect Ubuntu to lower smartphone and device prices any more than Android?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Yes

    The three factors of competition, openness, and lack of software licensing/litigation costs all stand to drive prices even lower. It can also forge the way for new distribution models, such as the tablet VAR scenario above.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    I really see the high-end as being a better shot for Ubuntu.

    At the low-end, no-name Android phone vendors will always be able to beat their prices.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Taking it mobile

    Would it make sense for Ubuntu mobile to run Android apps?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No.

    Ubuntu's ability to perform well on low-end phones and tablets is a result of its native code-base and Java-free implementation. Adding virtual machines and other software layers to run Android software would hurt performance, leaving new users with a poor impression of Ubuntu's functionality. It would also hurt efforts to build out its own app ecosystem and promote the "write once, run everywhere" mentality that is potentially its greatest strength.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    No

    It''s selling point is that it's an alternative to Android. They are, sort of, hedging their bets with Ubuntu for Android. If all Ubuntu does is become a fancy Android skin, then Canonical really has lost its bet that Ubuntu can be a real smartphone player.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Engineering services

    Ubuntu has said it will offer engineering services to bolster hardware makers. Is this a big selling point?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Yes!

    It's a non-issue with Apple, but developers and OEMs are very much on their own with Android. Especially in early adoption phases, as Canonical looks to convince partners that this is a road worth going down, it's important that they provide as many resources (like their outstanding SDK) and as much assistance as possible. If the tablet VAR I keep using as an example, an intrepid OEM, or a mobile carrier with a new way of doing business wants to jump in the game, then it can do so knowing it has the full support of Canonical engineers.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    I think Canonical had to do this.

    Everyone and their uncle it seems has a mobile OS and they had to do something to make themselves more attractive And, if Canonical can do the grunt work of loading the OS onto a vendor's hardware that's an attractive selling point

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Sucking it up

    Carriers and pundits want a viable No. 3 platform. Does Ubuntu have the chops to beat out Windows Phone and RIM's BlackBerry 10 platforms?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It can certainly beat RIM.

    RIM is a goner and the only people who don't know it are about 4 people working for RIM. Windows Phone is most likely going to be extremely successful in the enterprise. However, where Ubuntu stands to be a viable, competition-creating market player is alongside Windows Phone in the enterprise.

    It can also be a number 3 platform for consumers who either don't want to pay Apple prices or get locked into to Apple's ecosystem, who don't want to buy into Google's Internet, or want a device that is even more open than the new Nexus 4 can look to Ubuntu. That's actually a decent cross-section of users.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    I think it does.

    Windows Phone is just more proof that Microsoft can't get traction in the smartphone place even though they have de facto control of Nokia. As for RIM, it's a dead company walking.

    That said, just how much good will a distant third-place do for Ubuntu?

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Too late?

    Ubuntu is expected to have a unified image for smartphones, tablets, TVs and desktops in 2014. First, is that timeline too little too late? And second, does Ubuntu have a chance in either of those markets?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Vision is ambitious but hardly impossible

    The timeline is competitive with both Google's and Apple's vision of unification and Microsoft is increasingly looking to a unified experience everywhere from tablets to the XBox successor. The "screen" market is wide open right now, with entrants running Android, embedded versions of Linux, and Java. Ubuntu is friendly, performs well, and is highly flexible. Their vision is ambitious but hardly unrealistic or impossible.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Canonical is just way too late to market.

    True, TVs are still up for grabs, but the other markets already have strong leaders.

    If Ubuntu were at the place they are today in 2010, they'd be killer. Today... I still like the idea of one operating system for all platforms. Indeed Ubuntu has been working on this ever since they working on its Unity interface -- that name wasn't lightly chosen -- but it needs carrier and hardware partners to make it happen and they Still Don't Have Them.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Last question: Too close to Windows Phone?

    Ubuntu's mobile OS resembles others, notably Windows Phone, in some areas. Do you see that being a patent problem at some point?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Everything is a patent problem these days.

    If Ubuntu takes off in any reasonable way, then competitors will try to attack it based on IP rather than simply compete. That said, minor visual cues and a general approach to an uncluttered display are not likely to have too much traction in court. Then again, the patent system and related rulings surprise me every day.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    If I'm dead wrong...

    ...and Canonical becomes insanely successful, or even proves to be a very strong number three, then sure Microsoft will sue them. But, that's just 21st century business. Big companies would rather sue their rival into the ground than compete with them, and patent trolls just wait for any idea to take off before emerging from the weeds like jackals to tear at a company's success.

    Unfortunately for Ubuntu, I don't think this will go well enough for any of its contenders or patent troll to come after them.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks for joining

    I think the debaters did a great job and they are looking forward to your feedback. Check in Wednesday for the final arguments and Thursday for my verdict.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

Closing Statements

Market is hungry for a great third option

Christopher Dawson

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols makes a very reasonable case for the ongoing dominance of Android in the smartphone market, as well as growing dominance in the tablet market. In fact, I don't disagree with him on that point.

However, there's a bigger picture here that folks who discount mobile Ubuntu are missing. Will Ubuntu overtake Android and Apple with soccer moms and technorati alike waiting for days in line to grab up the latest uPhone from Canonical? Of course not. However, only having two players in the mobile market is like our current two-party government - it just isn't good for consumers and competition. Yes, Windows Phone/Windows 8 is there and will have an impact in the enterprise, but a third option with reach into both consumer and enterprise spaces means something. The market is hungry for a great third option and Ubuntu has all the chops to be it.

Technically, Ubuntu is a winner but...

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Since I started this debate I've had a chance to talk with Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth and get a look at an early version of Ubuntu for phones Oh My God. Sorry to sound like a teen-aged girl, but bven at this very early stage, Unity on the phone is the sweetest smartphone interface I'd ever seen.

From day one I knew Unity was really meant for touch interfaces. That's one reason why so many Linux fans were having fits about it replacing their GNOME 2.x style interfaces, I was inclined to give it a chance.

In addition, unlike Android, where the version you get is what you usually are stuck with for forever and a day, Ubuntu on phones, just like on the desktop, will be constantly upgraded. For frustrated Android smartphone geeks who always want the newest version they'll feel like they died and went to heaven.

Still, I'm left facing Ubuntu's real problem: Getting the carriers to buy it. After all, if no one ships it, it won't matter if it's the second coming of the iPhone. Shuttleworth feels that getting carrier support is all important and that the phone OEMs will follow along if they ask for it.

I hope, I really do, that he's right, but he's facing an uphill battle. I'll be rooting him on (sorry little, very little, Linux joke there) but beating Android and iOS is going to be hard. Knocking off RIM, Windows Phone OS, etc. -- that seems much more possible.

So, while I have to say that I'll still believe Ubuntu will beat Android or iOS when I see it, I now feel that it is a real shot at being a viable number three smartphone operating system.

Remote or very remote?

Lawrence Dignan

In an odd twist for this debate, both participants wound up thinking that Ubuntu has a chance. The difference was whether Ubuntu for mobile has a remote chance or a very remote chance.

All things considered, I think Dawson got the best side of the debate. I don't think Ubuntu has much of a smartphone chance, but Dawson's argument is cleaner. And we all want a No. 3 platform, but your guess is good as mine on which one takes on that role.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.