Can the Ubuntu Phone Succeed?

The Ubuntu phone faces significant challenges on its way to market.
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The greater the pre-announcement hype, the less important the news.

That's a truism among tech journalists, and it proved true yet again when Canonical announced that it would be producing a Ubuntu phone sometime in late 2013, or maybe 2014.

Canonical did its best to produce a whisper campaign and to offer a glossy video to go with the news. But the truth was, Ubuntu's general direction has been well known for months—at least since Ubuntu for Android was announced in February 2012. The only suspense was whether the announcement would be about a phone or a tablet.

Given the predictability, reactions to the news quickly got down to the basic question: What chances will the Ubuntu phone have when it finally hits the market?

At this point, predictions falter in the face of too many unknowns. The Ubuntu phone is what less-polite times used to call "vaporware," and its final specs and price are still to be finalized. Nor does the public know anything about the marketing campaign that will introduce the product, let alone what competition it might face a year from now.

However, the emerging consensus among those with any industry experience is that Ubuntu faces some daunting challenges. Even on Ubuntu's own mailing lists, excitement about the proposed product is lukewarm at best. Many are settling on a wait-and-see attitude.

This reaction is hardly surprising. You don't need to be an industry analyst to know that the phone market is crowded to the point of saturation. True, five years ago, the first Android phone seemed an equally dubious proposition. But for every success story like Android's, there are dozens of failed product lines. These failures include products from companies much larger than Canonical, including Dell and HP. In such a market, the prospects for any new product are doubtful at best.

Nor does the picture change when you look specifically at the announced selling points of the phone or at Canonical's commercial experience.

In fact, some pundits, both professional and amateur, are already wondering whether the phone will be what makes or breaks Ubuntu. That is probably a little drastic, but such suggestions emphasize the difficulties that the Ubuntu phone is expected to face.

Wanted: A Killer App

The most obvious angle from which to evaluate the Ubuntu phone is its features.

Understanding that most users have limited interested in the operating system, Canonical is not emphasizing the use of Ubuntu in the phone.

Instead, according to the media release, the Ubuntu phone "introduces distinctive new user experiences to the mobile market." Stripped of their marketing names, these user experiences include controls that are dragged open from the screen edges, global search, voice and text commands, HTML5 support and an evolving personal navigation device on the welcome screen.

In addition, the more expensive version of the phone can be docked, turning it into a full-fledged computer.

For the technophile, the result appears to be a moderately attractive product with some welcome features. But although aesthetically pleasing, the Ubuntu phone is not noticeably more so than the iPhone, which already has that corner of the market staked out and has greater name recognition.

Moreover, many have remarked on the influence of Apple's interfaces on Ubuntu's. Few people who have seen both could fail to spot the resemblance. Consequently, rather than getting credit for being something new, the Ubuntu phone risks being dismissed as an imitator—a reputation that would only work to its advantage if it were priced considerably lower than any iPhone.

As for the announced features, none is especially innovative, and the sum does not seem to be greater than the parts. What is missing is a must-have feature, the fabled "killer app" that will make buyers camp overnight to be the first to have the phone.

Not only that, but the controls dragged from the edges distinctly resemble similar features on KDE's Plasma Active. Given that KDE is working on its own Vivaldi tablet, which is likely to be released at least four months before the Ubuntu phone, that means that one of the most innovative features risks being dismissed as another imitation.

No doubt more features will be added to the Ubuntu phone before its release. But the announced ones are only somewhat compelling. They don't seem enough to attract attention in an over-crowded market.

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

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