The prospect of Ubuntu smartphones ever reaching American shores have just improved now that Verizon Wireless has joined the Ubuntu CAG (Carrier Advisory Group). Verizon is the first U.S.-based mobile network operator to join the CAG, and though it doesn't guarantee that mobile devices running the open source "superphone" OS will make it to the States, it certainly doesn't hurt platform's chances.
Over the past six months, Canonical has tantalized the mobile world with hints and glimpses of its forthcoming Ubuntu Linux-based smartphone. The company has billed the Ubuntu smartphone as PC alternative, a single secure device that docks to become a full PC and thin client, which enterprise IT departments can administer via standard management tools. Early test versions of the have yielded positive reviews, serving only to fuel more enthusiasm for the arrival of Ubuntu devices later this year.
Canonical announced the Ubuntu CAG last month, serving as "a forum for mobile operators to influence the development of Ubuntu for smartphones." Initial members included Deutsche Telekom, Everything Everywhere, Korea Telecom, Telecom Italia, LG UPlus, Portugal Telecom, SK Telecom, and an unnamed Spanish international carrier. China Unicom signed on a bit later, as did PT Smartfren Telecom of Indonesia. However, not a single U.S.-based provider had joined the ranks -- until now.
Verizon's participation with the CAG doesn't guarantee Ubuntu phones will show up in the United States any time soon -- or at all. "We've always supported multiple mobile operating systems, but ... today's news doesn't mean that we're committing to selling Ubuntu phones," Verizon told Ars Technica.
Ubuntu phones look promising. In InfoWorld's hands-on test of the first developer beta of the Ubuntu Touch OS for mobile, the platform proved to be "a more compelling mobile environment, even in the first developer version" than reviewer Galen Gruman expected. "It borrows heavily from other mobile UIs, including BlackBerry 10, the iPad, Android, WebOS, and Windows Phone, yet manages to feel like its own OS," he wrote. "It's much too soon to rate, but the OS is promising."
InfoWorld's Open Sources blogger Simon Phipps is also bullish about the platform, celebrating it as "a new choice for manufacturers that want to control their phone operating environment."
One of the questions since Canonical first revealed the platform, however, has been whether the platform stands a chance in the U.S. market, which is already heavily dominated by iPhone and Android and has heavyweight Microsoft fighting valiantly to claim a chunk of that market. "With a cool and genuinely innovative design, a range of options for app development, and a genuinely open community, Ubuntu Phone could be a real contender. But in which market?" Phipps wrote. "Probably not the emerging markets of the world, where the lower power of devices and the lower spending ability of consumers will favor old MIDP phones or new HTML5 devices like the ones Firefox OS will power."
If the Ubuntu Phone is going to thrive in the United States, Canonical needs to make sure its platform is as polished and appealing as its rivals -- and there's a well-stocked store of quality applications for the Ubuntu Phone. The platform also will require buy-in from mobile operators, so the fact that a major provider like Verizon has even shown signs of interest in Ubuntu Phone is a promising sign. Time will tell if other U.S.-based providers will join CAG before the Canonical closes the door to new members at the end of the month.
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