Can the Ubuntu Phone Succeed? Page 2: Page 2

The Ubuntu phone faces significant challenges on its way to market.
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The Dilemma of Distribution

Canonical is not a publicly traded company and chooses not make its finances public. For this reason, little is known about its financial position. Even when Canonical announces distribution deals, the only numbers that are given tend to be units or installations, rather than dollars, pounds or Euros.

However, Canonical's media releases do offer information on business-to-business agreements—for instance, so many copies of Ubuntu pre-loaded on Dell computers to be sold in India or theaffiliate deal under which Canonical receives revenue for displaying Amazon search results.

By contrast, Ubuntu has only limited experience with direct sales. In particular, although it deals directly with individual consumers in its Ubuntu One storage and music services, it appears to have next to no experience with retail markets. Judging from the available information, retail products like Ubuntu TV have been announced but seem to have attracted no distribution partners and have yet to make their way into retail channels.

So far, the same is true for the Ubuntu phone. Its announcement includes quotations from development interests, but none from manufacturers or distributors.

In this situation, Canonical has two basic choices.

On the one hand, it can find manufacturers and distributors for the Ubuntu phone—something that is always difficult with a new product. These potential partners prefer to deal with companies that have a proven record, and Canonical essentially has none that is relevant. Unlike Apple or Google, it does not even have much name recognition outside of the free and open source software community (a fact that is easy to miss if you are part of that community).

Given cash up front, manufacturers and distributors might agree to work with Canonical anyway. But unless they are enthused about the phone's potential earnings, their efforts to promote it are likely to be half-hearted. That means that its appearance in stores is likely to be haphazard, brief and obscure.

Judging from the media release—which practically begs for inquiries—Ubuntu's preferred strategy is to attract partners. However, if that strategy fails, Canonical might decide to distribute the phone online initially through its own outlets. Google, as you might remember, chose this alternative for its first Android phones.

In dealing with the free software community, Ubuntu has frequently chosen to go its own way, so it would have no trouble doing so again. The trouble is, this is an effort in which Canonical's sales and marketing team has previously shown no expertise. Just as importantly, the strategy is probably easier for companies like Google that are many times larger and better known than Canonical.

In all likelihood, do-it-yourself distribution would mean reaching only the existing free software community, which is probably too small to make the Ubuntu phone a success—even if all of it did support Ubuntu (which it doesn't). Nor would success in such a limited market satisfy Canonical's repeatedly demonstrated desire to enter the mainstream of computing.

Once this dilemma was resolved, Canonical would probably be sailing in familiar waters. The Ubuntu phone would need an app store to compete with the iPhone and Android stores, but Canonical could borrow heavily from the existing Ubuntu repositories.

For the rest, in developing a community of app developers, Canonical would be on familiar ground with its experience of organizing and motivating Ubuntu volunteers. But to get to this point, Canonical needs to navigate two difficult choices, each of which has defeated dozens of companies and products.

Just Another Turn of the Cards

No matter what the Ubuntu phone eventually has to offer, the odds are against its success—not because there will necessarily be anything wrong with it, but because most new hardware from first-time manufacturers fails, regardless of the product.

Such are the odds of bringing a product to market: the truly innovative risks being unappreciated, while more of the same risks being lost in the crowd.

What the Ubuntu phone needs—and, no doubt, what Canonical is desperately seeking—is a major partner that can be announced as soon as possible. Let, say, Samsung partner with Canonical and show enthusiasm in the months leading up to the release, and the Ubuntu phone should have a reasonable chance to succeed.

But without the endorsement of a better-known corporation, the Ubuntu phone seems a quixotic effort at best. You might want it to succeed because it comes out of free software and is the obvious underdog, but reality rarely takes our preferred outcomes into account.

If the Ubuntu phone does fail, that should matter only to those within Canonical and Ubuntu. Although Canonical executives talk as though the free software community looks to it for leadership, the truth is that only some still view Ubuntu as the last, great hope for Linux.

As I write, there are half a dozen other efforts being made by projects to bring the Linux ecosystem to phones and tablets, and if the Ubuntu phone fails, perhaps another will succeed instead.

All the same, you can expect the Ubuntu phone to be watched closely in the next year, as everyone waits to see if Canonical can overcome the odds against it.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, smartphone, Canonical

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