Has Ubuntu bitten off more than it can chew?

Has Ubuntu  bitten off more than it can chew?
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Canonical wants to put Ubuntu onto our TVs, tablets and smartphones, as well as our PCs. Barry Collins weighs up its chances of success.

Is Ubuntu the world’s most successful failure? By far the world’s best-known Linux distro (if you discount the disputable case of Android), it’s achieved what once looked impossible: an easy-to-install, easy-on-the-eye Linux distro that doesn’t immediately alienate anyone without a PhD in computer science. It’s met a punishing biannual release schedule with almost metronomic precision for a decade, embedded an app store long before Apple popularised the concept, and resides on tens of millions of PCs and servers worldwide. And yet…

Despite arguably offering a better desktop interface than Windows 8, Ubuntu remains a resolutely niche OS. Its share of the worldwide PC operating system market has never exceeded 1 or 2%; most web analytics packages fail to even recognise it as an OS in its own right, instead lumping it into a generic “Linux” bucket. That’s hardly surprising, when you consider how difficult it is to buy an Ubuntu system in retail stores – the sales guy at Harvey Norman thinks Ubuntu is a country in Africa. Even ordering systems online from “close” partners such as Dell is challenging.

Yet, despite failing to make a significant breakthrough in the consumer PC market, Ubuntu is accused of selling out by members of the open-source community. The attractive Unity interface has, ironically, split the userbase, with many accusing Ubuntu of dumbing down. Linux Mint is now the most sought-after distro, according to DistroWatch.com’s page-hit rankings. Meanwhile, free software zealot Richard Stallman is urging users to boycott Ubuntu, branding it “spyware” because of the way it sucks up user data to serve search results for Amazon. (Ubuntu developer, Canonical, denies the charge.)

Given that it seems to have plateaued in a declining PC market, perhaps it’s no surprise that Canonical is developing versions of Ubuntu for TVs, smartphones and tablets. This is an ambitious four-screen strategy that even Canonical CEO Jane Silber admits is risky, not least because users can’t easily install Ubuntu on the other three devices the way they can on a PC.

So what does the future hold for Ubuntu? Is the poster child of Linux distros overstretching itself? Or is it primed to become the next Android, an open-source alternative to the closed worlds of Apple and Microsoft?

Four-screen dream
The first glimpse of Ubuntu’s attempt to break free of the PC came more than a year ago, at CES 2012. At the far end of the hangar-sized South Hall, on a stand dwarfed by those of home-entertainment giants Sony, Samsung and Sharp, stood a single television running the Ubuntu TV interface. With no stadium-sized screen, deafening loudspeakers or scantily clad models to attract attention, most of the 150,000 attendees in Las Vegas merely ambled past – if they even made it to the back of the hall in the first place.

More than a year later, that Las Vegas demonstration unit is probably still the only public sighting of Ubuntu TV. Canonical admits it’s been tough convincing manufacturers to take a gamble. “We’ve had, and continue to have, good conversations with TV manufacturers,” Canonical’s Silber told us. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to announce a product launch date; it’s down to the TV manufacturers.”

What’s the hold-up? Major manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung and Philips have their own firmware installed and commercial content deals to go with it. Those Netflix and YouTube icons aren’t placed on smart TVs out of charity, in much the same way bloatware vendors buy their way onto your PC desktop. Canonical doesn’t have the financial muscle to buy its way onto TV sets, and so must rely on consumer pull to convince manufacturers to take a chance.

The question is whether Ubuntu TV is compelling enough to have consumers begging for it. Although the interface on the demonstration units looked attractive, the feature list – terrestrial broadcast PVR, satellite integration, extra information alongside TV shows, the ability to resume from where you left off – barely distinguishes Ubuntu TV from products already on the market. The doors of Sony showrooms aren’t being hammered down by consumers demanding change.

The smartphone arrives
Almost a year to the day since Ubuntu TV was unveiled, Canonical was once again inviting journalists to witness another new branch of the OS. A teaser on the Ubuntu website suggested a touch interface, leading many to predict the arrival of the tablet version. After all, with Windows 8 tablets now arriving, it would be easier for consumers to install the OS on their own hardware than it would be on iPads, Android tablets or smartphones.

Yet, smartphones it was. Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth introduced a somewhat contradictory strategy of targeting both low-end handsets and a new category of “super phones”, which would see an Ubuntu handset double as the user’s primary desktop computer. “This is Ubuntu – it’s the whole deal,” said Shuttleworth at a London event.

“You can dock this [phone] and get the full desktop with [virtualised] Windows applications.”
Ubuntu for phones doesn’t lack ambition. While the interface has elements that are shared across the different flavours of Ubuntu – the tray of apps that slides in from the left-hand side of the screen, for example – it also has a few unique touches. The equivalent of the lockscreen, for instance, is a swirling infographic displaying data such as the number of emails waiting in your inbox, or more quirky stats such as the distance travelled on your journey to work. And then there’s Ubuntu’s Head-Up Display – first introduced in Ubuntu 12.04 – which enables users to search for commands in apps, such as typing (or even saying) “sepia” to apply a tint to a photograph, rather than hunting out the correct button or dropdown command.

Most striking of all, however, is this vision of the desktop replacement “super phone” – a pocketable device that sits in a dock on your desk, powering an external display and all the applications you’re used to running in Ubuntu or even a virtualised Windows environment. Canonical isn’t the first company to try to pull off this trick: Motorola’s short-lived Atrix smartphone attempted to power a laptop-like terminal, but a high price and stuttering performance proved a less than alluring combination.

Silber is confident Ubuntu will be different, with the company laying down strict hardware specifications for the top-end devices. “You can plug your phone into a keyboard and monitor and have a full desktop experience – that resonates well with handset manufacturers and operators, particularly in an enterprise environment, as you can easily see it becomes your thin client, your main computing device. That requires a certain computing ability – a quad-core phone. Our technology story is strong,” she adds.

Yet, Canonical has – at the time of writing – failed to find a hardware manufacturer willing to back its vision. As with the TV market, Ubuntu finds itself unable to buy influence. While Google can lavish billions on buying Motorola, and Microsoft can spend similar sums buying Nokia’s loyalty, Ubuntu is left to slug it out on technical merit alone.

“We can’t buy our way into the market, that is absolutely true,” admits Silber. “We’re up against the
big guys – and that’s hard. We can’t do this alone; we have to partner wisely. We believe there are strategic pressures on industry players that make that possible.”

This appears to be driving a wedge between Google and Android handset makers. “There’s growing concern around the power in the Android ecosystem being centralised around Google,” says Silber. “It’s making its own hardware, it’s controlling post-sale services, and that’s a strategic concern to operators and hardware manufacturers. We believe there’s room in the industry for another player, and we’re positioned well to become that other player.”

Mobile market observers agree that cracks are appearing between Google and its partners. “There seems to be a big push for alternative OSes to Android: Firefox, [Samsung’s] Tizen, Jolla [born out of the ashes of the MeeGo project] and Ubuntu,” says Carolina Milanesi, research vice-president at Gartner. “Some vendors are looking at alternatives to differentiate their offering, so they’re not so dependent on Google.”

However, Milanesi isn’t sure Ubuntu will be the one to bridge the gap. “With carriers already involved with Firefox and Tizen, it will be hard to get traction for Ubuntu.”

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