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

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?
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

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."

Editorial standards