Ubuntu 'superphone' needs a superstrategy

In an interview, community manager Jono Bacon reveals strength -- and risk -- of Canonical's bold challenge to Google and Apple

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Bacon had no answers to these questions, suggesting a lack of focus on the one element that made both iOS and Android succeed: app developers. These days, it's no longer devices alone that drive the mobile market -- it's devices plus the app store that animates them and gives them a purpose. Today's mobile user expects a highly customized and personal phone, and app stores aggregate this long tail of customisation into solid markets. Without an app store, Ubuntu Phone is dead in the water. I'm sure this will be fixed, but whatever store Canonical launches will need to differentiate from the iOS and Android stores to be viable -- lower cost, faster vetting, or more accountability and transparency would all be strengths.

There's no store to attract app developers. What about other community involvement? Ubuntu has a strong community of advocates and end-users as you'd expect, but I was told Ubuntu Touch in general and the Phone project in particular are by far the most community-friendly open source option for phone. Unlike Android, which is developed opaquely and in-house by Google, Ubuntu Phone is available for developers from mobile carriers and device manufacturers to engage without needing to first start a commercial relationship with Canonical, according to Bacon.

That all sounds very promising. 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? 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.

Bacon took pains to say Ubuntu Phone is not targeting the same markets as Firefox. That leaves head-to-head conflict with industry giants Apple and Google and their huge, interconnected ecosystems. Third place is already hotly contended, with both Microsoft and BlackBerry trying to make markets remember they were once an option. Can Canonical capture any of that market? Bacon was as upbeat as ever in his replies, but that remains the key question. He pointed out that the whole mobile market rotates on a three- to five-year cycle, and Ubuntu Phone could well be able to drive the next change.

Whether that will work out is anyone's guess. Canonical is taking a huge gamble that will require considerable skill -- to harness business drive and open source community support, as well as answer the needs of mobile carriers and device vendors. But with the innovation and design passion they're putting in, they're certainly making a good run of it.

This article, "Ubuntu 'superphone' needs a superstrategy," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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