In April 2017, Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth announced that their support of the Ubuntu phone convergence was no longer something they were going to invest in. Looking back on this decision, I can understand where they were coming from. Let’s face it, we live in an Android/iOS landscape and all other entries into this space are just spinning their wheels.
Considering other projects that failed to garner needed traction such as WebOS, Firefox OS, among others, it’s understandable why Canonical decided to refocus their efforts into other areas. Well, at least with cloud services. I differ with them on IoT and believe they’re destined to repeat mistakes found with convergence.
The issue at hand is that Canonical tried to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. While I would agree that with IoT Canonical could offer improved security over current IoT devices, the problem is consumers simply don’t care. And folks, let me be clear – this matters a great deal.
Ubuntu phone missed the mark
One of the issues I found very early on with the Ubuntu Phone was its inability to solve a specific problem. Yes, iOS and Android leave a lot to be desired…but they have huge app stores with stuff people want. This means that any competing mobile platform must match or at least offer a compelling reason to ignore the benefits of an endless selection of apps. Sadly, no one has seemed to crack this just yet.
In addition to the lack of apps issue, there was the need to try and educate non-geeks why Ubuntu Scopes were arguably better than Android apps. Better from a resource and development standpoint, that is. But I was never convinced that they were better from a title selection standpoint…which is deal breaking for 99% of the population in the western world.
The Ubuntu Phone was using a hardware vendor that no one outside of non-US geeks have even heard of called BQ. Right, because here in North America 9 out of 10 of those asked will immediately associate that question with how much they love BBQ.
But pushing aside a non-recognized vendor issue, I can see how the Ubuntu Phone “should” have attracted large segments of the Linux community. And as expected, those interested in a new, still in beta phone OS did indeed jump at the chance to buy one. And when I say buy one, I mean buying an unlocked, non-subsidized phone at retail cost. Pitch this to anyone who can buy a recognized brand phone that’s subsidized and the BQ Ubuntu Phone loses instantly.
See, an overly expensive subsidized phone attracts more people because it’s available now, for little to nothing up front. That’s instant gratification. Bundle that warm feeling with an extra helping of thousands of recognizable apps and the fact that you may have already made a ton of app purchases for that phone’s platform, it’s tough to sell the Ubuntu Phone as a serious alternative. Think I’m wrong? Ask Microsoft how much fun they had dumping millions of dollars into a mobile OS no one wanted? Or Research In Motion and their BlackBerry platform. All were buried in the dust of Android and iOS.
How Ubuntu Phone could have worked
I think that the single biggest missed opportunity for the Ubuntu Phone OS was that it simply failed to address a serious issue – older Android phones no longer receiving security updates. Even if most people didn’t understand how dangerous that is, these same people would have benefited from making the switch with their older phones.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem. Many Android phones are not compatible with the Ubuntu Phone OS. This means that even though there are a tremendous amount of phones that would have found a second life using Ubuntu, their incompatibility with it means that older phone owners simply kept using their devices “as is.” The alternative is to buy or subsidize via your mobile carrier, thus repeating the cycle of planned obsolescence with your mobile phone.
Setting aside the challenges of installing Ubuntu on incompatible phones, using a proper Linux distro as your mobile platform has some significant advantages. For example, the security updates happen so long as the distro offers them. So when the Ubuntu Phone was officially discontinued, the community immediately stepped up to ensure that updates continued. You’d never see this in Android or with iOS as those are closed platforms.
So where does this leave us in 2017? As things stand now, we have the ability to install Ubuntu onto a very limited number of devices. Basically, it’s in a holding pattern ensuring updates. Had Ubuntu for phones simply spent more time perfecting select Nexus phones and eventually the next generation of Nexus phones, perhaps we could have seen greater adoption.
Let me explain. Ubuntu on the desktop grew in popularity because you could install it yourself on compatible hardware. To be fair, PCs have much more compatibility than phones when it comes to Ubuntu. But the organic growth for desktop Ubuntu happened due to self-installation, not dedicated hardware. So by adopting a similar approach with Nexus phones (back in the early days of Ubuntu Phone), we might have been able to make Nexus phones synonymous with Ubuntu.
I know what you’re thinking – Ubuntu was already available for some Nexus phones. Yes, but as a secondary offering. The bulk of the tech media focus was on the BQ phone offering vs that of being able to do limited self-installation. I think this should have been reversed.
Today, the UBports project is the Ubuntu Phone’s last resort. And who knows, perhaps it’ll see donation funding reach a level where full time development can resume with a focus on offering Ubuntu support to older legacy smart phones. It will take some effort, time and a lot of community resources to begin reaching this, but I think it could still happen.
Imagine, being able to pick up an old Moto or Samsung phone from your junk drawer and breathing new life into it! Need a throwaway Internet enabled phone for the kids, here ya go! I think the last grasp of adoption for any kind of proper Linux smart phones needs to mirror what made Linux successful with desktop users. Self-installing the operating system with as much compatibility and ease as possible.
Does the Ubuntu phone have a future?
What say you? Setting aside challenges presented above and maintaining an optimistic outlook, do you think we could see UBports growing into something amazing? Do you think people want a pure Linux experience on a smart phone? I do, but I’m curious what your take is on this matter.
Hit the comments below, sound off and let’s see if this is a project best left forgotten or if Ubuntu can make a comeback on your old smart phone devices.