I have something of a sordid history with Ubuntu Linux. It was the first Linux distro I had ever used back when I finally decided that I simply couldn’t tolerate using Windows XP any longer. As it was the easiest and most user-friendly Linux distro back in 2006, it started a love-affair with Linux that lives on to this day. Much of what I know about Linux today I learned from trial-and-error on my early Ubuntu installs and from reading the official Ubuntu forums.
Recently, though, Ubuntu has been experiencing some turbulence in their domination of the home Linux market. Their first questionable decision was to create a shell on top of Gnome which they called Unity. Filled with bugs and terrible performance in its first few versions, Ubuntu finally was able to culminate Unity into something that was not just usable but that was also enjoyable. Having achieved this, the distro regained some of my faith for a period of time until their more recent privacy blunder in which Ubuntu essentially decided that user privacy wasn’t as valuable as commission from Amazon. While they eventually decided to permit users to remove the offending software, the principal of leaving it installed and functioning by default didn’t sit well with me. Only adding fuel to the fire was the recent news that the company decided to release Super Meat Boy for sale via the Ubuntu Software Center without permission from the developers. They have not paid the developers for this, either, even after it was brought to their attention by said developers.
Now there is another glimmer of hope for my opinion of the company, though, as Ubuntu recently officially announced their new mobile phone operating system. If anyone is being honest about the phone market, they will admit that it is currently a duopoly from an operating system perspective. As far as marketshare goes there are Android devices and there are iOS devices. While there are plenty of other very good operating systems available their use is low at best. I was really hoping that the release of Windows Phone 8 would allow that particular OS to start gaining a little more traction, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case just yet. I’m not holding out much home that the next iteration of the BlackBerry operating system will change much for RIM, either.
Through a few videos of the operating system in action, like the one above, it seems to provide a fresh take on what a mobile phone OS is all about. The longer full keynote is available here. It almost reminds me of a cross between Android and WebOS, as it runs Linux under the hood (obviously), but decides to eschew buttons in favor of gestures. It also does away with the stereotypical grid of app icons that Samsung and Apple won’t stop suing each other over. Perhaps most exciting to me as an Android user, though, is that Ubuntu for phones will not feature a Java Virtual Machine like Android. While the Android OS is based on Linux and not Java (unlike the current generation BlackBerry operating system), it still makes use of a JVM for running applications. While this seems to work fairly well in most cases, it still means that the apps are not running quite as efficiently as they potentially could be. Any time you need a JVM to play middle-man in interpreting code it means that performance is suffering to some degree. Ubuntu for phones is all about native code, though, which is capable of running on both x86 and ARM processors.
Unlike Mozilla’s Boot2Gecko, Ubuntu is not aiming for reaching critical mass by targeting emerging markets. They aren’t planning to release this on budget hardware in places like Brazil and India. Rather, they’re wanting to reach users who want to get the most they possibly can out of a mobile devices by providing quality hardware capable of pushing the operating system to its fullest. Any nerd who isn’t excited about that possibility is lying.
While I have high hopes for Ubuntu for phones, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it at CES next week, there are still some downsides. The major one is their timeline. As mentioned by The Verge, Ubuntu isn’t looking to release this operating system for a LONG time after their announcement. They’re hoping to have a final version of it ready to be flashed by those with an appropriate Nexus device by the end of 2013. Devices with the operating system pre-installed are not expected to be released until some point in 2014. This presents a problem since it’s entirely possible that a good bit of interest will have died down between now and then. For instance, while writing this article I had almost forgotten that Boot2Gecko was even something being worked out when just a few months ago when it was announced I was extremely excited for it. Likewise, while the operating system is being designed for high-end hardware rather than budget hardware, Ubuntu is not at this time able to name any partners who have actually pledged to release hardware running the OS at some point. While I don’t doubt that at least some OEMs are interested, hearing about it now would still be nice in order to keep interest going.
My other fear for the operating system is more of a personal outlook on the mobile devices market. In the instance that Ubuntu for phones manages to become a success and gain traction within the market, I can only assume that it will cut down on the marketshare of Android rather than iOS. Given my extreme level of distaste for anything involving Apple, I can at least enjoy the fact that Android enjoys a lead in the market over iOS. Should Ubuntu for phones take off, I can only guess that iOS users will stick with what they have while Android users may be interested in migrating. While that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing since I assume both Android and Ubuntu for phones would become better as a result of the competition, I still wouldn’t want iOS to develop any type of leadership in the market.