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Ever since Canonical announced it was working on a Ubuntu-powered phone, the Ubuntu community has greeted the idea with enthusiasm. This initial reaction is understandable as a Ubuntu-powered phone could be the Android alternative that some Linux enthusiasts are looking for.
On the plus side, a Ubuntu phone wouldn't share Android's dependence on Java technology. Additionally, it has the potential to offer greater speed with less application overhead.
But despite these select advantages, a Ubuntu-powered phone faces some distinct challenges that folks need to consider before they throw their blind support behind the concept.
Challenges to Overcome
For many, the idea of a new platform coming into the mobile market seems exciting. However, Android and iOS have already established themselves as the two major players jockeying for control in this space. Ubuntu would have to compete with these two existing, more established players. Which begs the question: Is the Ubuntu phone unique enough to break through?
When Canonical first published the Ubuntu phone announcement, I was skeptical about how successful it could become. Making matters more complicated, I found out that the target for this mobile Ubuntu release wasn't necessarily geeks only. It turns out that the Ubuntu phone project is designed to appeal to new users of smartphones as well as existing smartphone enthusiasts.
In my opinion, this is spreading the Ubuntu phone project too thin. Pitting the Ubuntu phone against Android and iOS is a foolish decision—not because the other mobile OSes are superior, but rather because of the challenges the Ubuntu phone faces to become relevant within non-geek circles.
So what are the challenges that Ubuntu must overcome?
First, the platform must offer familiar apps. Sure, titles like Skype will be made available. But what about the app titles we see on TV or use on our Android phones outside of the international brands?
The Ubuntu team has made great strides to ensure that development tools are available, but they could end up facing adoption challenges early on. I'm concerned that the existing application ecosystems within Android and iOS may make anything Ubuntu does in the mobile space too little too late.
The next potential issue I see is the Ubuntu phone going "head to head" with Microsoft's Windows Phone. Earlier I mentioned that the Ubuntu phone was positioning itself to appeal to smartphone newbiews. Can Ubuntu also compete here? Will the Ubuntu phone offering phone-to-desktop technology be enough to lure Windows Phone users away from the Microsoft OS?
Honestly, I don't see Canonical making any more headway than the Windows Phone has with people who simply settle for the cheapest free smartphone available. New users aren't the marketable group where I see Ubuntu making the most headway. Instead, I think the existing Ubuntu community is going to be the easiest group of individuals to convert away from their preferred mobile OS.
Expanding the Ubuntu Community
The Ubuntu phone's best chance for success will likely come from existing Ubuntu users who are willing to flash their existing Android handsets to run an Ubuntu image. This OS image would take existing Android handsets and turn them into fully functional Ubuntu phones relying on Android drivers.
I also see these early adopters as more forgiving about the lack of popular iOS and Android app titles than more casual smartphone users. Despite this pass from Ubuntu enthusiasts, unless a typical Android user's existing library of Android apps is available on the Ubuntu phone, I think any wide scale OS switching is unlikely.
One plus side to the Ubuntu phone is the support for native-core applications. It's possible the Ubuntu phone could gain enough traction with mobile app adoption and fill in anything that's missing with Web apps. Because we're still so early in the development cycle, app development could surprise me and become a huge success early on.
Another positive note is that the Ubuntu community isn't alone with their excitement about the Ubuntu phone. All over the Web, news sources from CNN to other tech websites have expressed their opinions about how things could turn out for the Ubuntu phone. The project is gaining buzz, and that excitement is proving contagious. With all of the conflicting conclusions found in the media, one thing is for certain—the Ubuntu phone is gaining a lot of badly needed attention. And that can only mean good things for all involved in the project.
The "Other" Ubuntu Phone
Confusing matters, I've also heard reports that Canonical's Ubuntu for Android project isn't going away. Unlike the Ubuntu phone, Ubuntu for Android is designed to work within the confines of the Android ecosystem, but mirroring the dockable phone technology found in the Ubuntu phone concept. This would mean two conflicting projects competing for many of the same users.
Some believe that Ubuntu for Android will help to prepare people for the eventual release of the Ubuntu phone. They think of the first project as a lead in for the ultimate goal—dumping Android in favor of Ubuntu. But frankly, I think this is really silly. Why not put 100 percent of Canonical's mobile resources into the Ubuntu for Android project and stop trying to outpace Android? Again, I acknowledge the benefits of the Ubuntu phone, but I think this is too much too fast.
Despite my misgivings, Canonical seems convinced that their current approach is best—probably because the Ubuntu phone will allow mobile companies to brand the mobile OS with greater control than they can with the existing mobile operating systems. It appears that Canonical is betting on the egos of other companies to make the Ubuntu phone a success.
Then again, maybe Canonical realizes that allowing companies to brand the Ubuntu phone fully with carrier-specific themes will translate into profits for all involved? Instead of an Ubuntu software center, perhaps we'd see a Verizon or AT&T version of the same?
No one really knows how this will all turn out. One thing is for sure though—if Canonical can get the mobile carriers to show interest in a Ubuntu phone, it could lead to some fascinating opportunities.
Hedging Their Bets
So which will be the best path for Canonical to follow? Convincing hobbyists to flash their Android phones to run Ubuntu or reaching a deal with mobile carriers? If the Ubuntu team has its way, it will explore both opportunities.
Despite being skeptical about the success of the Ubuntu phone project, I will admit that Canonical is good at hedging its bets. No matter how impractical I might deem it to be, building the Ubuntu for Android project at the same time as they develop the Ubuntu phone project does provide Canonical with the greatest likelihood of success.
But I disagree with most Ubuntu enthusiasts about the eventual success of a Ubuntu phone. Right now, most Ubuntu fans are betting the phone will be the ultimate mobile "game changer."
I, on the other hand, realize the challenges that must be overcome in the mainstream world for the Ubuntu phone to be successful. Ad buys and partnerships with key mobile carriers are just the beginning of an endless list. My thinking is that Canonical will win the mainstream marketplace with their Ubuntu for Android project exclusively—not because one project is better or worse than the other, but rather because it's often more effective to colonize an existing environment than to "terraform" a brand new one.
I choose to leave the Ubuntu phone project to developers and hobbyists who will be excited about its performance prospects. For the rest of the world's smartphone users, however, the Ubuntu for Android project is where I'm placing my bet. The Ubuntu for Android project offers all of the same phone-to-desktop benefits without re-inventing the wheel. To me, this just makes more sense in the long run.