Las Vegas - Yes, I've just been arguing that Ubuntu isn't likely to beat Android on smartphones. But, you know what? Even with Ubuntu Linux on phones very late start I think it has a real shot to make a mark in the smartphone market. Here's why.
Over the last few days I've talked with Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth and Ubuntu's community manager Jono Bacon at CES about their plans and and I've gotten a look at an early version of Ubuntu for phones From this I've come up with my list of the top five things Ubuntu for phones has going for it.
5) Ubuntu Unity interface
Even at its very early stages Unity on the phone is the sweetest smartphone interface I'd ever seen. I've always known Ubuntu's default interface, Unity, was really meant for touch interfaces, now that I've seen it on a phone it really shows to its best advantage.
According to Bacon, you'll have the chance to install it and see it for yourself on Galaxy Nexus phones beginning in March. There have been other reports that the first Ubuntu for phones installation images will appear in February, but March is much more likely.
4) Easy Smartphone OS Upgradability
Shuttleworth pointed out to me, 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.
Bacon added though that Ubuntu for phone won't be using same release model as Ubuntu desktop. There won't be one universal image that can be used on all phones. Each phone model will need its own image to make the best possible use of its hardware.
3) Easy Carrier Customization
At the same time, however, carriers will be able to easily customize the phone interface and add their own apps. So, how can it be both easy for end-users to upgrade to the latest version and at the same time let carriers add in their applications and particular look and feel? Easy. By keeping the carrier optimizations in user space, where it's easy to change things, and out of the core operating system itself. This could be the best of both world for end-users and carriers.
2) Linux Desktop Software Compatibility
I had been worried about getting software developers to give Ubuntu a try. I mean there's already so much money to be made in Android and iOS and there's only so many embedded programmers to go around. Bacon made me realize though that all existing Ubuntu applications—LibreOffice, Gimp, Rhythmbox, etc.--will all run on Ubuntu phones. Now getting them to display properly on the phone's interface will take some work, but that's the easy part. The core functionality of tens of thousands of Linux apps will already be available. Of course, if you use your Ubuntu smartphone to power up a PC display you won't even need that.
To make it easier for existing Linux programmers to bring their desktop apps to the phone, Bacon said Ubuntu is working on providing programmers with QML (Qt Meta Language) widgets for quick interface development. QML, along with HTML5 and OpenGL, is native to Ubuntu on phones. These, and the software development kit (SDK), said Bacon, should be out in March.
What all this means is that every Linux programmer out there can also be a smartphone programmer. Almost a thousand developers, said Bacon, are already working on Ubuntu phone apps. Bottom line: Ubuntu is going to have thousands of apps. ready to go before it ships.
1) Green Fields and High End Markets
Shuttleworth also observed that Ubuntu gives carriers two models. In the first, they can cheaply add Ubuntu to low-end phones. This may not matter much in the power-hungry first-world countries, but Shuttleworth believes this makes Ubuntu ideal for second and third-world countries.
In the second high-end model, users will be able to use top-of-the-line Ubuntu smartphones both as a phone and as a desktop. Does the idea of using a smartphone to power your desktop sound silly to you? It shouldn't.
Tablets are already doing it and, as Shawn Dubravac, CEA's Chief Economist and Senior. Director of Research observed at CES said, "65% of the time we spend on mobile phones is not communications. Even adding in e-mail, texting, and so on, smartphones are no longer about communication." Shuttleworth and company are just taking the smartphone to its next natural evolutionary step.
Finally, Bacon observed that "No one loves their Android phone, we want to build a phone that users will love: One that will be more beautiful than Apple and as powerful as Android but with the open -source legacy of Ubuntu." I like that vision of Ubuntu on phones. I like it a lot. I really hope it comes to fruition and, for all the reasons I give above, I think it just might make it.