News surfaced yesterday that Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, will bring its Linux-based platform to mobile devices sometime within the next several years. The popular desktop browser alternative has long been thought to be a good candidate for tablet devices but ZDNet reports that the company would like to take it to smartphones and smart TVs as well.
Canonical is entering a complex ecosystem. Creating a new platform for mobile devices is more than just rallying developers to the cause (that certainly does not hurt). Commercial uptake has a lot to do with what the original equipment manufacturers and mobile carriers want and how they can implement a platform. As we have seen with Android, that is a tangled web to weave.
Ubuntu For Smart Devices Not Coming Soon
Ubuntu Linux is not coming to the commercial landscape in the near future. ZDNet points out in its interview with Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth that the timeline for devices is not until 2014. That is more than two years from now and an eternity in the mobile realm. The article also notes that there is no alpha code for Ubuntu for smart devices, so there is nothing to throw towards the developer community and have them run with it.
What could happen in two years? Will users become disenchanted with Android and run in droves to whatever else is new and sexy? Will the passing of Steve Jobs leave an innovation hole in Apple and users become tired of the incessant upgrade process where Apple does not make leaps in its products but systematically produces nominal updates? Does Nokia create a niche for itself with Windows Phone, say 15% of the mobile market, that takes market and mind share from Android and BlackBerry? What about BBX and its future? Hey, even Tizen (or MeeGo, Maemo, Moblin … whatever it is actually called these days) pull itself together and create a dynamic and different UI that OEMs and consumers shell out money for.
The danger is that the longer it takes for Ubuntu to make its way to mobile, the higher the barrier for entry for a successful platform. Yet, if we take a look at the rise of Android, a good mobile platform with a polished UI and cool devices backed by both the OEMs and the carriers has a chance to create significant waves in a short amount of time. Android has Google and the Open Handset Alliance pushing it towards greater heights. Canonical will need to create that same type of support infrastructure because commercial viability will be more than just releasing the source code into the open ecosystem.
The Modern Day Game Of Thrones
If people are familiar with the HBO series “Game of Thrones” (or the original Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin that it is based on), think of the mobile platform wars as a battle between kings with subplots galore. In Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” it would be called Daes Dae’mar – the game of houses. The ruling kingdoms are now Apple and Google with various niche plots broken between Microsoft, Samsung (Bada), WebOS, Nokia (S40 Symbian), and Research In Motion (BlackBerry). Other kingdoms exist for the carriers and OEMs. Developers serve these kingdoms one way or another, depending on loyalty or how lucrative it is to do so.
Google subsumed the kingdom of Motorola and put its alliance with the kingdoms of HTC, Samsung, LG and others at jeopardy. Those ecosystem players are now looking for potential partners from other kingdoms or the community. In perspective, what happens if HTC ditches Android and Windows Phone and decides to build with Tizen or Ubuntu? How do the carriers react to that? In the end, UI and the application ecosystem are deciding factors.
Is 2014 too long to wait for Ubuntu to hit the commercial market? Or does letting the market adjust itself and then jumping in provide a better opportunity. Is Ubuntu for mobile destined for “by the geeks, for the geeks” status, as Ubuntu desktop is? Let us know in the comments.