Android and iOS have been the only two serious contenders in the smartphone race for the past year or so. BlackBerry OS market share has been in freefall for ages, Windows Phone has just not been able to attract a whole lot of users, WebOS is long gone, Symbian has been left to die in the cold, MeeGo missed its chance, and things have been silent on the Bada front for so long that I can’t see anyone getting excited about it again. So there’s enormous opportunity for a new competitor to step into the race—but it will need to be really special in order to succeed where everyone else has failed.

At this point, there’s actually a lot going for Ubuntu. It’s an established name and has a huge amount of goodwill going for it. The design and interface shown off so far have been fresh and imaginative. The focus is squarely on emerging markets and first-time smartphone users, which is clearly where the action is. A less-appreciated factor is Ubuntu’s promise of bridging the smartphone, PC and cloud: something Apple, Google, Microsoft and most hardware manufacturers are trying to do today.

Lofty promises that others have made before.

Lofty promises that others have made before.

Much is still unknown about how and when “Ubuntu Phone” will see the light of day. Canonical’s website makes it clear that the company is happy to work with anyone and everyone who would like to produce such a device—OEMs, ODMs and network operators are its realistic targets—and that it shouldn’t take much effort or money for anyone to do so. Many of the right boxes are checked: deeply integrated HTML5 web apps, native C/C++/JavaScript apps, powerful OpenGL graphics architecture, and piggybacking on Ubuntu’s recent adoption by Valve and EA on the desktop. Desktop Ubuntu has a thriving software repository, so an app store mechanism is built in. It’s also making the ambitious promise that desktop and mobile software doesn’t need to be different at all—one app is all a developer needs to publish. Plus, there’s the tantalizing Ubuntu “superphone” device spec that supposedly allows you to dock your phone to a monitor keyboard and mouse, turning it into a full Linux workstation.

So who might actually bring such a device to market? Quite obviously, Apple will give it a pass (although it could stand to freshen up the familiar iOS icon grid with a few borrowed ideas). RIM, the other big manufacturer with an in-house OS, has far too much invested in BB10. Only a catastrophic failure in the next 12 months would make it look elsewhere, and by then it might be too late. Google now owns Motorola, ruling out that option and interestingly, giving its current and potential future allies enough of a reason to explore alternatives.

Nokia has been loud and clear about its commitment to Windows Phone, although if it does one day decide to reverse course, Ubuntu might be a decent mid-range offering. (We’ll hold out hope for a MeeGo/Jolla patch-up, but that just doesn’t seem likely to happen). HTC could do with some fresh blood, especially since it’s had such a tough time distinguishing its Android products in the market over the past year. Samsung is actually a relatively strong contender. Apart from making sure it has a toe dipped in the Windows Phone pool, Bada and Tizen have served a very strategic purpose: a range of devices capable of competing with Android will help Samsung keep Google on its toes and in its place.

Then there are the smaller names: companies that have dabbled in the smartphone space so far but haven’t really stuck to it or made a huge splash. These include Acer, Lenovo and even Dell and HP. All of them are PC manufacturers and many have experience with Ubuntu, giving them another reason to try using it as a PC-phone-cloud solution going up against Apple, Google and Microsoft. They might latch on to it as their only chance.

A fresh new interface that makes full use of gestures.

A fresh new interface that makes full use of gestures.

In many parts of the world, cellular operators which used to sell self-branded phones with custom modified hardware and software have ceded some of their power to hardware and software makers. Canonical has specifically called them out for potential new customized, Ubuntu-powered devices.

With the focus on cheaper devices for India and China, dozens if not hundreds of local companies should also be more than eager to jump onto the smartphone craze. This is in fact the most likely avenue for Ubuntu, and the most likely to help it achieve a large install base in a short time. Millions of people will buy budget and midrange Android devices in these two countries over the next few years—unless there’s something else that attracts their attention instead.

Clearly, there is plenty of opportunity and it’s ripe for the taking. But others have failed, and Ubuntu has an uphill task ahead of it. This is not a product that’s launching right away; in fact it could take a year for Ubuntu phones to hit markets—if they ever do. It’s nearly impossible to predict where each of these potential partners will find itself by then. Moreover, Ubuntu will have to compete with the next major iterations of iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The next year will also see competition from Firefox OS, Tizen and Jolla, all of which will take the low-cost, local manufacturer route in India and China.

You could carry your entire PC in your pocket next year.

You could carry your entire PC in your pocket next year.

There’s also the matter of tablets. Touchscreen devices are taking over from PCs in many areas, so much so that Windows 8 is what it is. Each of the big three has a solid tablet OS offering, while Ubuntu isn’t known even for touch support on the desktop. Finally, there’s the matter of Ubuntu alienating some of its longstanding user base by including Amazon Store matches in local search results and even the desktop. Many users are unhappy about their search terms being sent to Amazon, and that could be just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s still at least a year to go before we’ll see how any of this pans out. 2013 will be interesting for a market that just about seemed as though it was entering a mature phase.

Publish date: January 7, 2013 9:54 pm| Modified date: December 19, 2013 6:29 am

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