Ubuntu mobile OS has potential, but there's a long, uncertain road ahead

Ubuntu mobile OS has potential, but there's a long, uncertain road ahead

Summary: Canonical has unveiled the third part of its four-screen platform strategy, but with no commitments from operators or handset makers, will we ever see an Ubuntu-based smartphone?


Canonical kicked off the new year with a tantalising glimpse of its mobile Ubuntu platform. Slick and well-designed as Ubuntu for smartphones appears, you should take a long look now in case you don't see it again for quite a while.

Ubuntu OS
Can Ubuntu on smartphones possibly win hearts and minds? Image: Ben Woods

Don't misunderstand me: I like the look of the new OS, and in the short hands-on time I got, it certainly seemed intuitive enough to use. I also like the open-source ethos and the extensibility of a platform with a vibrant ecosystem — which Ubuntu on the desktop can already claim.

However, while Canonical has plenty of experience hosting cloud-based services and app stores (a major hurdle for new entrants to the mobile space), it doesn't have a great track record in bringing physical products to market that use its software — at least, not in the UK, where the company is headquartered.

The operating system itself reminds me in some ways of Windows Phone 8, and in others of the new BlackBerry 10 OS, which is set to get its official launch on 30 January. Neither of these references are a bad thing.

This, though, is part of the problem: the mobile marketplace already accommodates two huge platforms (Android and iOS) and one (Windows Phone) with aspirations of hugeness. And that's just at the top.

As well as these market-leading mobile OSes, there's a bunch of other contenders, from Symbian and Bada to SailFish, Tizen and Firefox OS. The list of failed or amalgamated open-source efforts goes on even longer.

So although a low-cost platform has appeal for handset manufacturers, there's hardly a shortage of them to choose from right now, with Firefox OS and Tizen being the most recent examples of what can be achieved by fully embracing and supporting HTML5.

An Android alternative

Carolina Milanesi, mobile analyst at Gartner, agrees with me.

"There seems to be some interest in alternative platforms to Android. This is driven on the one hand by vendors that do not want to put all their eggs in a basket by supporting only Android, and also by operators who do not want to become too dependent on Google," says Milanesi. "Device ASP (average selling price) is another reason that carriers consider, although I believe that this is less of an issue today than it was a year ago."

So with price to market becoming a less important factor for low-end handsets, some of Ubuntu's core appeal is diminished. And when it comes to Canonical's high-end 'superphones', few big-name handset makers are likely to be willing to risk a high-profile launch with an unproven mobile OS.

Of course, Canonical's trump card is its vision for running the same core Ubuntu platform across all devices. But whether handset manufacturers or mobile operators share that vision is another matter.

Long and winding road

The biggest problem facing Ubuntu for phones is its roadmap: there won't be an Ubuntu-based handset before the end of 2013 at the earliest, and that's a very long time in the mobile world. A lot will change in the intervening months — you only need to look at the opportunities just over the horizon afforded by an increase in network speeds to realise how much things can change.

It doesn't bode particularly well when your product launch roadmap is measured in years rather than months

The 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicks off next week in Las Vegas, where the new Ubuntu platform will be extensively demoed. But that's all happening without a single commitment from a mobile operator or handset maker.

It doesn't bode particularly well when your product launch roadmap is measured in years rather than months, or that very little has been heard about Ubuntu for Android — Canonical's planned route for planting Ubuntu in the minds of the handset-buying public — since I caught up with the company at last year's Mobile World Congress (MWC).

Milanesi has a different concern, based around the extensive use of HTML 5.

"An HTML5-based OS runs the risk of getting us back to something that's called a smartphone, but in reality remains a feature phone where vendors differentiate on UIs — as was the case when we had proprietary OS [on handsets]," Milanesi told me. "For developers and consumers this will mean, more likely than not, fragmentation. All in all this seems like a step backwards rather than forwards."

Topics: Ubuntu, Linux, Mobile OS, Mobility, Open Source, Smartphones, United Kingdom

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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  • So many problems with this plan

    First off, the video shows just how horribly laggy and unintuitive this OS is. It would be a major step backwards from my Nokia Lumia 920.

    Second, Linux is the LEAST secure out of all the mobile OSs / kernels / code bases / whatever you guys want to call it today. There is a ton of malware out there for Linux powered mobile devices like the Samsung Galaxy and the Nexus 4. Meanwhile, on a mobile platform like WP8, users are very safe. So choosing Linux as a base for this new mobile OS is not a good idea. After all, it can't even keep Android users safe.
    • Malware

      The question you need to ask is whether the malware you speak of takes advantage of kernel flaws or Dalvik flaws, or just plain configuration flaws. Configuration flaws can be fixed and Dalvik flaws won't affect non-Android system. Kernel flaws potentially could affect things depending on what they are, especially if using similar hardware.

      The impression I always got was that Android's insecurities have more to do with either Dalvik issues or simply due to Google Play's lack of attention to security when accepting software submissions, but I won't pretend to be an expert on the issue.
      Michael Kelly
    • Ignorant.

      Wow you really are trolling by saying the complete opposites.

      * Am I to presume your Nokia Lumia 920 has proven crap Window8 Phone OS. Yeah nice phone hardware, pity about the OS.

      * There's no loss in security running Ubuntu on a phone to a desktop. The source code is the same , bar it compiling to ARM binaries.

      * Microsoft is a trojan and virus haven. I've seen newly installed and patch Windows machines dying with viruses in days on internet access. Yet to see a virus in 8 years of Kubuntu. Yeah there maybe unknown viruses but yet to see any compromise of my Linux machine.

      You seriously can have your crap Microsoft trash. No one cares about that company any more other than losers locked in history and their own space.
      • You can't change the facts on the ground

        The fact is that Linux powers the most malware laden, least secure mobile OS in the world: Android.

        That is a proven fact. Nothing you say can change that fact.

        Windows Phone 8, on the other hand, is completely malware free. That proves it is an extremely secure and safe OS. Marketshare has nothing to do with how often an OS is targeted, right?
        • Android and Malware

          I think you need to step back and think.

          Android malware does not target it's Linux layer, they compromise the code that the app is written in which usually is the java layer. Also the malware you talk about is deliberate data mining and other spying designed by the app makers. Google allow you to choose apps by what they have access too.

          Unlike Android, Windows is under major attack and is full of holes. Many of those holes are probably there for NSA and Microsoft to spy on customers. Any company with IP or strategic investments, would be crazy to use Microsoft operating-systems.
          • The big lie

            "Switch to Linux, you'll be safe."

            Clearly, this is a lie. Millions switched to Linux and they aren't safe. They are constantly under attack by malware.
          • go back in your closet

            I think you need to do the world a favour, crawl back under that rock you've been living under and cease bothering humanity with your existence.
            Ron Laws
          • Ridicukous

            You really are being ridiculous.

            The reason why Linux is mostly clean is that its make-up is built on source code all can example. Yes there are proprietary drivers or software that don't have source code.

            There was a news article years back that some Linux kernels at the time were compromised by a rogue coder that put backdoors for the likes of NSA. These were addressed on the questioned distributions. Least they were found and the community outed them.

            Some nations like the USA have laws on hardware makers to put backdoors in their products. This situation may not be avoided, but you are better with an OS you can read the code that makes it. Software usually drives hardware.

            Linux also has a very secure file and privilege structure.

            I haven't got into kernel development but someone may be able to describe how good the kernels privilege rings are for executing code.

            Overlook typos please as keying in dark room and fast.
          • Android and Malware

            "I think you need to step back and think."

            Who are you? Annie Sullivan? ;)
        • beancube

          Confused. Exploitation is the major force of the economy, right? If Linux benefits exploitation, merchants should love it more than the others, right? Anybody actually uses it as a trap to users in the field yet? Just look into the market share and you know they are ignored by exploitations even exploitations exist.
        • How about taking a little of your own medicine?

          Well forgetting the fact you give no source for the claim "Linux is the most insecure OS", let's examine that claim.

          All the 'malware' you claim for Android is in the form of Apps purposely written to do bad things. Yes, Google should be doing more to weed these apps out. However, in the past, you have defended Windows security by claiming security issues with Java, Flash, Reader, etc, are not Windows issues.
          So using YOUR logic, Android App issues are not Android issues. So lets now count the Android/Linux security issues, shall we?

          Android App malware: Many
          Android malware: none.

          Well so much for Android/Linux being the most insecure OS.
          And as you Windows guys always say: I have been using Android for years with absolutely no malware issues, and I have yet to see an Android phone with a malware issue, so once again, by the logic you yourself has used to defend Windows, Android has no malware issues.

          Let's give the most insecure OS award to the real winner. At approx. 1.5M active malware programs, Windows is still the leader and winner. Woo-ho!
          • Windows just lost that title

            "Windows is still the leader and winner. Woo-ho!"

            I just posted the proof that 10% of Linux powered mobile devices have been attacked by malware. 6% of Windows PCs have. Linux is the new leader and winner. You are less safe running a Linux powered mobile device than you are running Windows.

          • Where did you post that?

            And you still haven't admitted Android App issues are no more Android issues than Windows App issues are Windows issues.

            Feeling no pain.
          • But this never seemed to matter before

            The claim was always "Switch to Linux, you'll be safe from malware."

            Everyone who purchased an Android device "switched to Linux". They weren't kept safe from malware.

            Are you willing to categorically state that if one were to "switch to Linux", they would be kept safe from malware? If not, why not?
          • Where did you come up with?

            “switch to Linux, you'll be safe from malware”

            Trusted source.
          • Let me ask you a simple question

            Will you categorically state that switching to Linux will keep you safe from malware? That's a simple statement to make. If you are willinng to make that statement then yes, I have a trusted source: you.

            If you aren't willing to make that statement then we agree: switching to Linux will not keep you safe from malware.
          • Switching

            “switching to Linux “

            What version of the Linux kernel version would I be switching to and which distro would I be switching to.
          • Does it matter?

            Are the caveats about to start piling up? In other words, all thos people actually meant:
            "Switch to Linux, you'll be safe from malware*"

            *not really, it depends on a whole host of factors like which distro and which kernel and whether or not you download programs from untrusted sources and whether or not you run as root and...

            What a shame you aren't comfortable stating this:
            "Switch to Linux, you'll be safe from malware"

            with NO caveats.
          • You provided that caveat

            “Linux” in all your writings.
            What is Linux?, in your own words.

            (What is a PC)
          • Yet again you are showing your intelligence or lack there of.

            ANDROID is not LINUX. Apple Iphone OS is Based on Debian Linux which is also the same kernel Ubuntu is based on. Windows has ALWAYS been and always will be the target of "Viruses" and "MALWARE" This is a well known fact. Linux runs without the need for Virus scanners and "MALWARE" is a web based term for phishing companies looking to sell you crap and therefore EVERY OS is subject to some malware regardless of kernel. you should stop using your keyboard I think you are hurting your brain.