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Ubuntu Invites Phone Makers to Cheat on Google

A mobile version of the world’s most widely used Linux operating system shows promise, but it will face stiff competition.

Mobile operating systems have a big influence on personal computing and internet access, and the market for this software is increasingly dominated by Google.

BlackBerry’s new smartphone software is so last week. A new free mobile operating system is being readied for release—by a company hoping to earn support from mobile carriers and handset makers interested in weakening the dominance of Apple and Google.

Ubuntu phone
Phone home: The lock screen of Ubuntu’s mobile operating system shows recent activity, such as the number of new tweets from people the user follows.

That new smartphone software is a version of Ubuntu, a free Linux-based operating system for laptops, desktops, and servers. The U.K. company Canonical, which developed Ubuntu, says the first commercial handsets running the operating system will hit stores at the end of 2013. But an early version of the software will be available free in the next few weeks, along with tools for installing it on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone. The source code will also be released, allowing developers to modify the software so that it can be installed on any Android handset.

Pat McGowan, director of engineering at Canonical, demonstrated Ubuntu for phones at an event on MIT’s campus last week. While BlackBerry carpeted several basketball courts for an extravagant Manhattan launch of its new BB10 software the same week (see “BlackBerry’s New Phones Score Points”), Ubuntu’s public debut was more subdued. Instead of press flown in from around the country, the attendees were a handful of computer programmers and academics, some perhaps attracted as much by the free pizza as by a novel mobile platform.

As the setting suggests, Canonical can’t match the resources behind BlackBerry or the other leading mobile-OS makers, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. It has just a few hundred employees and measures its annual revenue in tens of millions of dollars rather than billions. Ubuntu can be installed on most computers in place of Windows or OSX, but it’s most dominant in the world of Web servers. And Ubuntu on the desktop is most popular among programmers and in a few niche markets around the world.

Even though no plans for devices running Ubuntu have been announced, the platform could still fare well in the mobile market for one important reason: it offers a way for handset makers and carriers to lessen the control Google wields through its free Android operating system.

“There does seem to be room in the market for another mobile operating system,” McGowan said during his presentation, adding that Canonical has seen a “very strong, good reaction” from mobile carriers and phone manufacturers so far. “There’s an interest in something other than Android because Google’s got a lot of control,” he said. Although Google’s Android is also based on Linux and is free to use, the company develops it in private, and most phone makers use a version bundled with Google services. Furthermore, in the past Google has released the latest versions of the software to some hardware makers before others—and required them to install it without modification, to demonstrate the latest capabilities.

Canonical could also gain momentum by targeting fast-growing smartphone markets in developing countries, where high-end devices may be too expensive for many people (see “Ubuntu Smartphone Aims for Success in Developing Countries”). But Ubuntu’s biggest challenge may be in delivering the kind of polished design and usability consumers expect from smartphones, which have not traditionally been priorities of the volunteer programmers who work on Linux and the standard Ubuntu operating system. The version of Ubuntu that McGowan demonstrated on a Galaxy Nexus was rough around the edges—slowing down when I opened several apps, for example—but had many features one would expect from a modern smartphone, including a simple music player and music store and the ability to play high-definition video.

With no commercial devices expected until late this year, the platform will start well behind the competition, with few apps to attract users unless carriers choose to help out.

“The question is whether enough people will use it that developers will write apps for it, and the reverse,” says Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School who studies competition in technology industries. “Will enough developers write apps for it that people will use it? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.”

In hope of accelerating the development of compatible mobile apps, Canonical has made it possible to build them using the same standardized technologies used to build Web pages. That means many developers won’t need to learn a new programming framework, and the code used to create Web apps like the ones found in in Google’s Chrome Web Store should run on Ubuntu devices with minimal modification.

Canonical says that software for the mobile version of Ubuntu will also work on the versions available for PCs and televisions, something not offered by other operating system companies. “Having a platform on top of all of those—I think that’s interesting,” says Andrei Hagiu, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “They’re saying: ‘We’re going to simplify this world both for users and developers.’”

Ubuntu won’t be the only free, open-source mobile operating system to launch in coming months. The Mozilla foundation, which makes the Firefox Web browser, is preparing smartphone software known as Firefox OS with support from the handset maker ZTE. Meanwhile, a consortium of companies including Intel and Samsung is backing another Linux-based operating system, called Tizen (see “The Underdog Operating Systems Set to Shake Up the Smartphone Scene”).

Even if carriers and hardware companies welcome the arrival of all that competition as a way to dilute the influence of Google and Apple in mobile software, it could make things considerably less simple for user and developers. “Don’t we have enough operating systems for phones?” asks Hagiu. “If I’m a developer, I kind of hate that I have to write for all of them.” 

Keep up with the latest in Apple at EmTech Digital.

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