Ubuntu Phone: Not a moment too soon

Newly announced Ubuntu Phone operating system looks great -- but the cutthroat mobile device market demands more

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Canonical, you're late
All this is highly relevant to Canonical's success with Ubuntu Phone. The announcement this week comes with no news of devices running the operating system and no deals with OEMs to deliver devices soon. The timing was clearly meant to coincide with the Consumer Electronics Show next week in Las Vegas, where Canonical will be present, looking for customers for Ubuntu Phone. This "vaporware" dimension has been the source of the most coherent criticism, including from Linux kernel developer Ted T'So, who commented:

What do I make of it? (1) Canonical is starting after Windows Phone 8 has been rolled out, and of course long after Android and iOS have been established, so it is very late to the party. (2) Microsoft has way more marketing budget than Canonical, which is important both for attracting end users and application writers, and which is very important when you are trying to overcome the aforementioned last-mover disadvantage. (3) RIM, Microsoft, Samsung, Apple, etc. all have way more experience negotiating with carriers, which is critically important in the US market (it's unfortunate that the carriers have that much power, but it's true). (4) Canonical has relatively little experience negotiating with handset manufacturers.

Time will tell whether these criticisms will win. Certainly the U.S. mobile market and that of both Europe and the Far East are very different, and plenty of opportunity is out there. Canonical may well win by being less of a commercial threat to OEMs than other vendors. Google, Samsung, and Microsoft are all so large they dominate and threaten smaller competitiors in a way Canonical will not.

Software patents
The mobile device market has another problematic dimension: patent wars. Decades of cartel-like behavior around standards by the incumbent vendors, aggressive interventions by mobile market newcomers like Apple and Microsoft, and greedy opportunism by herds of patent trolls all make the mobile market a minefield. Google's approach was sound: basing its platform on Java so that Sun (then Oracle) would clear part of the minefield in advance. Canonical appears to be making a similar calculation.

Linux is as well-defended against patent aggression as possible, with defenses such as the Open Invention Network easily available and with very large corporate players like IBM acting on Linux's behalf. All the same, if Canonical gets any traction whatsoever, it's easy to imagine the trolls lining up in droves to sue their partners, just as they are with Android. Canonical's approach is to rely on the Linux system to clear as much of the minefield as possible and then to handle future issues on a case-by-case basis.

On balance, I think Canonical has unveiled a well-devised idea with the potential to disrupt the mobile market yet again. Unifying desktop, tablet, and phone in a way not even Windows seems to have achieved is a promising idea. But to succeed, Ubuntu Phone will need to win the endorsement of several major OEM partners, the interest of significant carriers in several markets, and -- perhaps most critically as a force for disruption -- the trust of open source develoeprs around the world. Those are all very big asks.

Canonical has built Ubuntu into the most viable midpoint between commercial viability and software freedom for the consumer market. With luck, Ubuntu Phone will follow that same trajectory.

This article, "Ubuntu Phone: Not a moment too soon," 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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