Ubuntu Versus Android for Phones and Tablets

For the last seven years U.K.-based Canonical has essentially been trying to create with Ubuntu a free open-source alternative to Microsoft Windows for desktop and laptop computers. On these machines it has become the most popular flavor of Linux, largely thanks to its polish, ease of use and plentiful features.

Linux as a whole, though, has not come close to denting Microsoft Windows’ dominance of the world’s computer desktops. StatCounter, for instance, shows Linux with a steady share of less than 1% of the global operating system market based on visits to websites. Ubuntu is really just the largest fish in a pretty small pond.

But the company still thinks big. Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth, in an interview with ZDNet, says it will be taking Ubuntu Linux to tablets, smartphones and smart televisions. The article points out that it is already in some ways further along a similar path to Microsoft with Windows 8 in creating a desktop that will look and feel similar across different types of device.

It sounds impressive, however, given the strength of iOS and Android it seems foolhardy to try and enter their space. Mr. Shuttleworth comes up with some plausible arguments as to why a new entrant such as Ubuntu could succeed.

Shuttleworth sees “Android as its primary competitor. But, from the industry viewpoint,Google acquisition of Motorola Mobility has shook up the hardware vendors, so some of them are looking for non-Android alternatives…”

As for the other alternatives, “OEMs have tough choices. They can build their own operating system, such as what HP did for a while with webOS or work in a consortium, Consortiums [such as the one behind the now effectively defunct MeeGo] can’t win. They can’t take a forceful, direct view with their products. The smartest OEM strategy is to play people off against each other. Thus, some OEMs want to have Ubuntu as a disruptive element. A strong Ubuntu can be both more co-operative with OEMs than a larger company and give them leverage with Google and Microsoft.” Finally, and this is telling, “Ubuntu has shown that we can hit deadlines and innovate. We can deliver a good plan and products.”

Mr. Shuttleworth’s road map is for versions of Ubuntu for different devices to be ready for April 2014. He says Canonical has been talking to partners for 18 months, so the first tablets and smartphones might not appear long after that date. These, of course, would not be the first Linux-based mobile devices, for that is the kernel of Android as well as Ubuntu.

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