AFTER LINUX VENDOR Canonical delivered on last year's promise to get Ubuntu running on smartphones, Amazon might be the only major device maker interested in running with the operating system.
Canonical endured a turbulent 2012 with the fallout from its decision to force the Unity interface continuing and its decision to saddle up to Amazon raising the ire of existing users and privacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. However the firm's decision to hook up with Amazon becomes clearer as it tries to enter the lucrative smartphone and tablet markets.
As Canonical tries to differentiate Ubuntu from the other desktop Linux distributions, it has promoted Unity as a touchscreen friendly desktop interface that can also handle traditional desktop applications. Longtime Ubuntu users might question how successful Canonical has been in reaching that goal, but given the frosty reception that Microsoft's Windows 8 'Metro' interface has been receiving, Canonical hasn't done too badly.
Canonical will play on the fact that Ubuntu on smartphones will retain application compatibility with its desktop Ubuntu distribution, which should be attractive for Linux enthusiasts and those that want to use a single device. With both ARM and Intel embedded chips being capable of running most consumer PC desktop workloads, this is something that Canonical's rivals will also look into as a way of breaking down Microsoft's longstanding PC desktop market domination.
Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of the Ubuntu project said at the launch, "This starter smartphone or operator-branded smartphone market is an area where Ubuntu will excel. We're confident we can deliver a better experience than Android here." The firm also claimed that its Ubuntu operating system can provide better performance than Android on low-end smartphones.
While Shuttleworth can easily make such claims in a speech, it is far tougher to substantiate given that Android is already doing very well in the so-called 'starter smartphone' market. And given Ubuntu's reputation as a far from lightweight Linux distribution, it seems hard to take Shuttleworth's claim at face value, even if it might turn out to be true.
Effectively Shuttleworth has kicked off a Linux distribution war in the smartphone market, just as Canonical has been trying to compete against Red Hat and SuSE in the Linux server and cloud markets in recent years, with some success.
Canonical said that it expects Ubuntu smartphones to appear in 2014, which isn't a very long time, all things are considered. While smartphone vendors such as Apple, HTC and Samsung work on one year product cycles for their headline devices, establishing a new operating system takes a considerable amount of time to put together the hardware-software integration and develop and distribute the support services such as the app store and developer tools.
But Canonical faces another problem. When it comes to smartphone manufacturers in the market for a new operating system, most of the major players are out of the question. Apple, Motorola, Research in Motion and Nokia look all but certain to stick with their respective operating systems. While Samsung likes to try mobile operating systems, as it has done with Android, Bada, Tizen, Windows Phone and other proprietary ones, it is looking like Tizen based handsets will be the next big thing for the firm as it tries not to leave all its eggs in the Android basket.
Sign up for INQbot – a weekly roundup of the best from the INQ