Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth has never been one to think small. Walking down Oxford Street in London a few years back, he told me that one thing his money gives him is the ability to "see into the future a few years," buying things today (his example was blisteringly fast Internet service) that will be commonplace tomorrow. Not content to simply see the future, however, Shuttleworth is now trying to invent the future, elevating Canonical's Ubuntu Linux distribution from the sexiest nun in the Linux desktop convent to the dominant operating system for mobile devices.
It's a big goal. But is it a reasonable one?
Shuttleworth declares that "Unity [Ubuntu's user interface] in 2013 will be all about mobile – bringing Ubuntu to phones and tablets." He makes a compelling case in a slick video. But in this, as ReadWrite's Dan Rowinski has pointed out, Canonical is already several years too late. The opportune time for an open-source alternative to Apple's heavily controlled iOS would have been at Apple's apex of dominance... which is precisely when Android staked its claim. But Ubuntu wasn't there, instead focusing on yesterday's desktop market.
Fighting Android And iOS - And Microsoft
Now Canonical must swim upstream against entrenched, premium iOS and entrenched, commodity Android, which competes well at the high end while eviscerating Apple at the low end. Add to this developer inertia, whereby mobile developers balk at even the fragmentation within these two platforms, and Canonical has entered a market that it has no reasonable chance to win.
Knowing Shuttleworth, this won't deter him in the least. I suspect it energizes him.
No matter that Microsoft, far better financed and with dramatically more industry support, appears to be failing in its attempt to dislodge either iOS or Android, despite a reasonably compelling offering for the same high-end enterprise market Canonical is targeting, in addition to the low-end feature phone market. By most accounts, Windows Phone 8 is an exceptional mobile operating system, with stunning innovations like social integration into one's address book. And yet it has failed to make any sort of dent in the market, leading one prominent analyst, Roger Kay, to deride Microsoft as having "reached an Orwellian impasse, in which it cannot tell the truth - even to itself" about how the market operates and its fortunes within the market.
Can Canonical hope to do better than Microsoft?
This isn't a question of intelligence. Nor is a suggestion that Shuttleworth lacks Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's flair for developer dances. It turns out that mobile is incredibly, brutally hard. I spent a year at Canonical and worked amongst exceptionally talented people. If Ubuntu on smartphones fails, it's not because the people building it are weak. It's because mobile is a terribly tough market to crack.
Frankly, I don't think Shuttleworth's convergence argument is the right way to win. I don't want the same OS to run across my disparate devices. Or, rather, I don't want the same experience across those devices. I actually want my apps to span different devices, but that isn't really a platform problem. It's a billing issue, and not one that goes away until we escape the app stores that lock our apps to a particular store, rather than being connected to the developer.
Nor do I think developers really believe that they can write once and have their applications run anywhere. That hasn't worked on iOS or Android, and Ubuntu isn't going to be much different. It's fiction that writing an app on Ubuntu for smartphones will carry over to Ubuntu for in-car entertainment systems. Technically, that might be possible, but the user experience in those disparate systems requires a different application. I just can't see developers getting much of a reprieve by having "one OS to rule them all," even if it works as advertised.
The Internet And HTML5 Offer The Only Way In
But if we step back a moment, there is actually one OS that spans wildly different devices. It's called the Internet. And Ubuntu, as much as any other hardware-bound OS, gets it right.
In Shuttleworth's video announcement of Ubuntu mobile, he says something that could well prove the key to Ubuntu's success:
[In Ubuntu] Web applications are now first-class citizens in your launcher and switcher instead of being trapped in a browser. Nobody else brings desktop apps and web apps together so seamlessly.
Google beat iOS in smartphones, as it's threatening to do in tablets, by offering developers and users a different experience, one built on lower costs and openness (not to mention heavy subsidies). To pit itself against Android, as Canonical is doing with Ubuntu, Canonical needs to offer something better, and not merely a better user interface, which Unity may well be. That didn't work for Microsoft, and it's unlikely to work for Canonical, because it's not enough of a differentiator for developers and consumers to really pay attention. Shuttleworth is also correct that emulating Android is likely a losing strategy.
But making the Web a first-class citizen on mobile devices? That would be a Very Big Deal, and it's one that Canonical has already started to deliver on, as Shuttleworth rightly notes. It's a potentially winning strategy because it's disruptive.
Shuttleworth stresses that being late to the mobile party is a virtue, but I can't agree. Except...he might be right insofar as HTML5 is concerned. Ubuntu's tardiness has allowed HTML5 to mature. For the first time, HTML5 job postings, which look to bloom beyond Android and iOS jobs, are about to surpass Flash developer job postings, as Indeed.com data shows:
Eliminating The Barriers Between Native And Web
This could be the perfect storm for Ubuntu to make its mark on mobile. By eliminating the sometimes silly distinction between "native" and "Web." By making the Ubuntu experience about what happens beyond any single device - about what happens in the HTML that spans different devices.
This is, of course, precisely what Mozilla is hoping to do with Firefox OS. In an ideal world, the two open-source giants would work together, as there is far more to be gained by collaborating on making the Web a first-class mobile citizen than there is to be lost.
Regardless, launching a full-frontal attack on Apple and Google is a losing strategy. But going in through the Web's back-door, one whose mobile capabilities are already good enough and keep getting better? That strikes me as something that Canonical is well-positioned to deliver, and just the sort of industry-changing disruption Mark Shuttleworth could sink his teeth into.