Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ubuntu for smartphones: Better late...?


Yes, I am sure you have heard the news yesterday... Ubuntu for smartphones! Great news, right? Here's the official video hosted by non other than Mr. Mark Shuttleworth himself. This video is particularly interesting because it sums up what 2012 meant for Ubuntu, what milestones have been achieved (from a highly optimistic lens, I might add) so far and where it's headed moving forward:

So it's all good and dandy, right?... Well, maybe not so. As exciting as this announcement is, as amazing and drooling it may be for us techies, it's just that, an announcement. Is it any different to what we have already seen about Ubuntu TV or Ubuntu for Android? Will it become a reality this time?

If everything goes smoothly (which is never really the case), we should start to see Ubuntu smartphone(s) early 2014. Even in a perfect World in which Ubuntu would be released 100% ready and bug free, with all applications available and fully functional, I am afraid it would still be too late.


We have seen vast improvement in Android during 2012. Just a few months after Android 4 was released, we turned into 2012, and during its twelve months, everything about Android and its ecosystem matured exponentially. From stability and performance to UI design and the corresponding standards solidifying around the HOLO interface, Android finally became the stronger contender to iOS. Flexibility, openness and customization had always been Android strengths, but during 2012 they aligned with a robust, much more secure and faster OS. Along with that came tons of improvements to Google's own apps, the most popular being Google Now, Google Maps, Google+, Google Earth 3D, Gmail and Google Drive. However, Google did not settle at the OS or application level, they pushed like crazy to expand the ecosystem, improving and polishing the incredible Google Play store, which now sells all kinds of media in a wide array of countries. As if that was not enough, Google made a strong effort to make its own line of devices grow, and now the Nexus brand is very popular Worldwide, not just in smartphones, but also in tablets.

Long story short, today there are two very well defined and fully mature ecosystems available, with a third one coming together pretty fast, Windows Mobile. Microsoft and their many partners are pushing hard to make Windows Mobile another strong contender, and it's hard to argue they will fail. Like Google, they offer a wide array of services, as well as native integration with the most popular desktop OS available today. Certainly, the Windows Mobile ecosystem is still a bit immature compared to the two big dogs out there, but I believe it will be on par, or at least fully mature, come 2014.

That leaves us with three incredibly strong contenders by the time Ubuntu for smartphones should be ready to hit the market, but that's not it. RIM will present its much renewed Blackberry 10 OS in just a few days, and they seem in a good position to regain some of the enterprise leadership they had not so long ago. Last, but not least, it's important to remember that there are other open alternatives already available and ahead of Ubuntu, such as OPEN WEBOS, which has HP support and already has version 1.0 available and working Alphas:

Also, let's not forget about MOZILLA OS.

Is Canonical's offer so compelling to be able to make some room for itself in such a crowded market? What exactly is it offering that should attract OEMs over other more mature alternatives like the ones mentioned above?


Yes, it is indeed a very crowded market, but also one not very friendly to openness. The big names in the carrier market in the US, AT&T or Verizon to name a couple, have openly shown their disapproval for open mobile OS. They don't like people doing whatever they want with their phones because they want a controlled and profitable environment in which to make money. Android being so big may have the strength to push back on some of their limitations, but it is very unlikely that a poor underdog will cut it for them. Unfortunately, we have seen many examples proving that in order to survive in the mobile market, specially in the US, it is key to have the support of a wide range of carriers. Samsung VS HTC is a clear example.

Will Canonical and their partners be able to get support from many carriers to guarantee some success?


I have argued in the past that, as mobile ecosystems mature, it's less and less about the device itself, or a particular UI, or even apps, and more and more about what the services and the integration available to the user.

I am a Google user, extensively using lots of their services, so for me it is clearly advantageous to choose Android and have all of my stuff seamlessly integrated, from the desktop to my mobile and/or tablet. On the other hand, I work in a company which went Microsoft's way, meaning Outlook, MS Office, Sharepoint, Internet explorer and things of the like are the tools of choice. In that case, it is clearly better to go Windows mobile, and the same rationale would apply if Apple services and products were there instead.

Where does Ubuntu fit in there? In terms of services, it offers almost nothing, perhaps Ubuntu One and Music, but they are already available for Android and they are far from the industry leading alternatives out there. Therefore, what exactly does the Ubuntu experience offer to lure an Android or iOS user away from his/her services and devices? Little or nothing, I am afraid, and even less a year from now.


I know this article has a negative vibe to it, but I couldn't help it. We have seen how quickly industry leading solutions fell down to pieces overnight (RIM, Symbian) in an incredibly tight and competitive environment. To think that Ubuntu can make a difference because it is open and has a beautiful interface is simply naive and ignorant, specially since there are already open alternatives that are struggling and because a sleek and beautiful interface means little in a World of custom launchers like Android.

I honestly hope I am wrong, I have been using Ubuntu for years and sincerely wish they succeed on this one, but it is clear Canonical face a massive challenge this time, probably bigger than the desktop one. In fact, I can only think of one little niche where they can enjoy some modest success: budget phones. If they manage to squeeze a decent performance on humble hardware, they may attract some attention and buyers here and there, but looking at some of the latest budget offerings from Nokia and other Chinese manufacturers... It will still be a huge challenge. Moreover, that would be the exact same strategy Mozilla is looking into!


  1. To me there's hope for Canonical here if the consumer cell phone model changes. That is, if a market for affordable, contract-free, carrier-agnostic smartphones really opens up, if the Ubuntu product appears in that market, and if there's enough developer support for it, then the niche Linux user-base might gravitate towards it and perhaps also might bring with it some of the Android base. Otherwise, yeah, if I'm pondering a new handset in the AT&T store (or the Verizon store or the T-Mobile store, etc.), along with another 2-year contract, even if I'm a desktop Linux user, why would I consider leaving a mature ecosystem that I'd already been invested in?

  2. You are correct when you say that you are pessimistic. The first flaw I see in your post is that you think in Android/Apple/Microsoft/RIM terms. That's like trying to compare Linux to Microsoft. Linux is not nor does it try to imitate Microsoft. Therefore, I guess Ubuntu working also on phones (from what I understood, the same image could be installed on phones, desktops, etc.) is a path trying to bring about a different movement with different goals.

    Second, Ubuntu has shown to be a different kind of open-source enterprise. Before it's arrival, Linux was an OS mainly for the techies and for the skilled people. Ubuntu is organized, it is solid, it has financial backing and, despite a few hiccups here and there, it stays on goal. The success of the OS I'm using right, Mint, and which continues to wow me is greatly due to the Ubuntu despite becoming more and more independent from it. I'm not an advanced Linux user and probably will never be, but Ubuntu made it possible for someone who's even at a novice or intermediate level to use an open-source OS.

    Thirdly, between Android and Apple, I prefer Android. But Android is Linux-based, like Apple's software, it is not Linux. My Android phone is constantly being attacked by malware and it kinda reminds me of Windows. One of the things I loved about Linux since I first started to dual-boot in 2008 is the security it provided. I can't wait for a phone with such a level of security.

    And finally, if what Mr. Shuttleworth said will come to be, an Ubuntu phone should be able to use apps made for Android as well as HTML5-based OSes like Firefox OS and Tizen. Therefore, apps should not be a problem.

    I'm not sure Ubuntu will succeed, but I'm sure it will at least bring change and will create waves that will be felt even by the giants.

    1. Glad to agree to disagree, but one thing in your comment is specially interesting...

      "My Android phone is constantly being attacked by malware"...

      Just curious, how's that? Can you ellaborate? Are you on an ancient version of Android and sideload like crazy? There are lots of myths about Android malware that are simply not true, so I would like to know more from your experience to understand what you mean.

      In any case, Ubuntu is no more secure than Android since the latter turned into version 4.x. In fact, it is less secure, it's just that it is not being attacked as much as Android. Trojan horses exist in all platforms, and Ubuntu (Linux in general) is no exception. If someone sugar coats a trojan horse enough to lure Ubuntu users to download and install the app from a custom PPA, they will get "infected", it's actually pretty easy.

      Remember, system security means nothing when compared to user stupidity and/or ignorance.

    2. I use a Galaxy S3 which came with Android 4.0. Later, I uploaded to 4.1. I only downloaded apps from the official Google store and I found viruses, spyware and other types of malware. Every time I connect to wifi I need to scan my phone because I often find "surprises".

    3. hmmmm... I am not sure if you are just trolling, but hey, I'll chime in anyways.

      To begin with, you cannot find viruses, because they do not exist in Android, much less after Android 4 was released, when sandboxing was implemented. Android is pseudo-Linux, which means viruses (pieces of software that can do things without the user intentionally allowing it) do not exist. Rootkits, Trojans, spyware, yes, as in all OS in history, but not viruses.

      You say "other types of malware"... Like what? In all honesty, if users stick to popular apps, like they do in a vast majority of cases, then there is really no problem.

      Then there is the fact that even the most pessimistic malware reports talk about negligible percentages of it coming from the Play Store, and they acknowledge that it is removed after a few hours, days at worst. You have to understand that anything that is uploaded to the Play store is first tested on a virtual machine, in order to ensure the application does what its developers officially intended it to. It's by no means a perfect method, but it removes a whole lot of threats.

      In addition, the scanning thing. You do know that scans don't really scan at all, right? Because of the sandboxing feature, a so-called antivirus cannot really scan any other application because it is bounded to its own sandbox. The only thing they can do is compare the list of applications installed on your mobile to inventory put together by the software maker.

      Finally, what do you mean by surprises? Reading that an application can access your contact list?... That it can read your phone status and identity?... What exactly do you mean by surprises?

      Summarizing, Android 4.x is a VERY secure system and what you describe (if accurate) is more an exception than anything else. The weak spot is in older versions, specially when they side load, but then again, that's no different than using Ubuntu and installing software from an uncertified PPA, which by the way is extremely common among Ubuntu users.

    4. Trolling? Not at all. I've been following your blog for years and I've contributed from time to time, though I'm not a big fan of KDE like you nor do I have your expertise.

      I have to take back the "virus" claim because, technically speaking, you're right. My antiviruses find threats and not viruses. As for "negligible" threat, I don't think so. You've reiterated twice the example of Ubuntu users using unsecured PPA, and for the second time I have to tell you that it's not my case. I've only used the Playstore.

      As for surprises, every time I connect to wifi, I find new apps that installed themselves in my phone, I find new threats and my phone behaves in a weird manner. To be more specific, after installing apps from Playstore, my phone's backlight started lighting randomly without any input (which sometimes annoys my sleeping girlfriend =D ). More examples of surprises, this morning I woke up with Android telling me that two apps were something like "adware" (if I remember correctly the wording). On the bright side, it did give me choice to remove them and I did so.

      So, I'll also reiterate: I never ever had this problem with Linux. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, Linux is better than pseudo-Linux.

      Now, why did you take it so personally? I'm not bashing Android especially since I've already stated I prefer it to iOS. I'm simply saying that, from what I can deduce at this moment, Ubuntu for phones seems like a more attractive OS for my smartphone.

    5. Hey, Lupi, sorry if I sounded harsh there, it was not my intention. I know you have commented before and I thank you for your following and contributions.

      Please understand that there is a fundamental flaw in your argument, as you are relating Android or Ubuntu security to your personal experience, which for better or worse, has absolutely no influence in the matter. In fact, you are comparing an extremely popular mobile OS to a very low profile, yet fully fledged desktop OS, which does not make much sense. You are assuming Ubuntu´s security features will translate seamlessly to the mobile World, but that is a crazy thought. If Canonical even dreams of getting standard mobile users to understand users profiles, administrators, roots, sudo, permissions and things like that, they will not last a second in the mobile market. They must water down security to the levels in other alternatives, where users are, by default, allowed to install applications, no questions asked.

      However, very little of what Canonical is bringing forward with Ubuntu for smartphones is official. We have seen a few demos, but other than the fact they can run HTML5 and native apps and the UI, we know nothing about other concepts, like security. So you see, your point is, in many ways, even difficult to argue with. Nevertheless, here´s my counter.

      Most recent reports of malware in Android consistenly report malware in the Play Store as a tiny sample within the thousands of entries they download and test. In all the reports I have read, Google Play malware is anywhere from 3 to 5% of the entire sample. On top of that, a big majority of that is only risky, not necessarily a threat, meaning it can be adware or applications including permissions that perhaps fall outside the scope of what they do (say a notepad app that accesses your phone status and identity). Now, the fact that they have more permissions does not mean they are using them for malicious ends, yet they are still listed as risks.

      There are many articles already pointing out that the whole propaganda campaign around Android malware is just a pile of BS, AndroidCentral has explained why several times. I recommend reading this article as reference, but there are others debunking similar exaggerated malware claims:

      Now, going back to your comparison, let´s see... As of 2011, Wikipedia says Ubuntu had a user base of around 20 million users Worldwide. I´ll be extremely generous and consider three times as much for 2012. That´s 60 million users in what, 8 years of existence? According to Gartner, Android gained around 105 million users in Q3 2012. Back in Google I/O this year, they were talking about 480 million users, so the figure must have got close to 700 million by now. Just by looking at the numbers, and inferring what each user base would potentially attract hackers more, we see the comparison is not that easy to make.

      Long story short, consider Ubuntu desktop, in its current state, had close to 700 million users Worldwide, was a successful platform for selling apps, music, and all kinds of media, and had several application stores available for users to choose from, stores in which Canonical would have absolutely no control over content. How secure would it be? How difficult would it be for a hacker to create your typical game or boobs-wallpaper trojan horse and sneak into thousands Ubuntu users´ PCs? That´s the question you need to ask yourself when you consider Ubuntu security and compare it to Android, not if in your personal experience one has treated you better than the other.

  3. I used to write for a mobile device news site up until a few years ago. As such, I not only saw the fall of once dominating mobile phone firms (RIM, Palm), but I even saw attempts to penetrate the smartphone market that were pretty much dead before they started (anyone remember Microsoft Kin?)

    The mobile phone market is extremely unfriendly. Even THAT is an understatement. As Chema said, the main goal of the major service providers in the US is money, and open source doesn't mix well with that ideology.

    But not only that; mobile phones are also considered a status symbol, even moreso since the introduction of the iPhone. If you have an iPhone or high-end Android, you're considered "cool". It's like a fashion accessory, and the brand name is important to consumers, as are features and power. So in comes a device with software from a company that no one BUT Linux-familiar people will recognize (at least in the US). Not only will it have to prove itself worthy to carriers, but to buyers as well (which is ultimately a harder goal, speaking as a programmer).

  4. Ubuntu and Android...for the FUTURE!