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The start of the new year kicked off with an announcement that another open source mobile operating system will be coming to market… but this one is truly unique. The provider of one of the most popular Linux-based desktop operating systems, Canonical, recently announced a distinctive smartphone interface for its Ubuntu operating system. Aside from Android, open source platforms have had a checkered history with limited success in the smartphone environment (e.g. Openmoko, LiMo, MeeGo, webOS). Ubuntu faces much uncertainty with many challenges ahead, but its unique positioning and appeal could help it shine in an increasingly competitive and crowded market.
One of the primary goals of Canonical is to provide a unified family of interfaces for phone, PC and television devices utilizing the Ubuntu OS. Best-suited for high-end multicore “superphones,” the Ubuntu phone OS delivers a rich graphical touch interface with a full PC experience when docked with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Canonical is also providing a free variant of Ubuntu designed to run on Android phones to immediately enter the mobile market. The OS will support web-based HTML5 and native applications.
Ubuntu has a lot of things going for it that past open source OSs did not. First and foremost, Canonical has been very successful in growing Ubuntu’s presence in enterprise desktops and server platforms across the world since its launch in 2004. The company amassed plenty of experience hosting cloud-based services and app stores, a major obstacle for new entrants to the mobile space, and developed a global market presence through leveraging partnerships with leading PC OEMs including ASUS, Dell, HP and Lenovo. Additionally, application support will be bolstered by Ubuntu’s considerable following of desktop developers and a Webkit made available by Canonical to help migrate applications from the desktop platform.
Though no open source platforms have been able to measure up to Android’s success in the smartphone arena, many network operators and OEMs would like to have an alternate available. They have recognized that the growing duopoly between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android in the market could stifle innovation and give them too much power over industry participants and users themselves. Furthermore, an alternative operating system, like Ubuntu, could help carriers and manufacturers gain a more substantive relationship with smartphone buyers by adding their own branded offerings.
However, Ubuntu faces numerous obstacles in its quest to make a splash in the smartphone OS market. The two biggest concerns, intensely growing competition and a lack of handset provider support, permeate throughout market for mobile operating system providers. The market already accommodates two huge platforms (Android and iOS) and two others with aspirations of greatness (Windows Phone and Blackberry), and that’s just at the top. By the time the first Ubuntu-based handset comes to market at the end of 2013 (earliest), the next versions of Android and iOS will have been deployed, Blackberry 10 will have finally arrived and Microsoft will be soon-updating its own mobile software. Also, Canonical has yet to disclose any commitments by operators or handset manufacturers to support the Ubuntu operating system and few big-name “superphone” OEMs are likely to be willing to risk a high-profile launch with an unproven mobile OS.
A lot will change the landscape in the meantime leading up to Ubuntu’s eventual mobile debut. The OS contains some very innovative and inspiring design ideas, and Canonical boasts unique core strengths that make their operating system truly different from any other open source OS that has crossed the mobile environment. The new OS will have the opportunity to be a significant player in emerging markets, as well as with people already committed to open source. Though more competition would force the pace of innovation to increase, Google and Apple will be heart-pressed to relinquish any market share and will continue to add to and enhance their own platforms in a bid to stay relevant. Demand for an Ubuntu-like platform exists; it’s just a matter of getting past the crowd at the door.