Looks like Canonical is serious about making 2013 a big year for the Ubuntu project. As I am sure you are aware, Canonical revealed the Ubuntu Phone OS earlier this week. Unfortunately, like most Linux enthusiast, I have not been able get my dirty little mitts on a device running the new operating system but have been reading everything that Canonical and other sources have written about it. I really would love an Ubuntu-based phone, but have some serious misgivings about the OS: Canonical doesn’t have carrier relationships, the mobile market is maturing, and you can’t buy an Ubuntu Phone today.
Carriers are incredibly powerful in the mobile space and it is more than a little difficult to release a product without their approval and cooperation. To date, Canonical has no public relationship with any carrier and has never released any sort of device that uses cellular technology*. If you know the history of the iPhone and Apple’s interactions with the major US carriers to get the original iPhone on the market, then you know how difficult dealing with them can be. The telcos are old companies and they run their business in a very old school manner, basing a lot of what they do on relationships.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Canonical can get a good carrier relationship to the point where the carrier actually promotes and pushes the Ubuntu Phone; make no mistake here — the carriers do push certain phones over others in the stores via ‘sales incentives’. The last time a carrier really stood behind one platform was a huge success for the platform — the platform was Android and the campaign was Verizon’s ‘Droid’ campaign. It’s fair to say that Verizon made Android a household name and can be credited with a lot of the platforms early success, but would they do it again? Would any carrier when they can just work with any of the hundreds of Android manufactures and get a platform they know they can sell? It is widely held that the ‘Droid’ campaign was designed to compete directly with the iPhone, an AT&T exclusive at the time. The market today is different, however, and if the carriers want to push handsets other than the iPhone (perhaps because they can strike a better financial arrangement with a different manufacturer than Apple), they already have the Android powerhouse and the Windows 8 darkhouse. The market is matured and there isn’t just one platform anymore. Worse still for Canonical (and Microsoft but more on that later), a lot of everyday users have spent a lot of money on apps for Android and iOS. I believe that this creates something of a platform lock in scenario that most consumers would be unwilling to move from one platform to another, because they have purchased apps and other content that cannot be moved between platforms.
It’s 2013. You can’t make a huge mobile announcement and not actually have anything consumers can buy, but that’s just what Canonical did. Of course, they will get a lot of Ubuntu fans (myself included) installing the OS on a spare Nexus but, for the mass market, they have just squandered the excitement that the market displays around a new platform launch. Worse still, they have not announced any retail partners. The sad truth is ‘normals’ (non-geeks) buy their devices in carrier retail stores or other outlets. If the Ubuntu Phone does not have a retail presence, then, for a huge market segment, it might as well not exist.
This article has been focussed on showing the issues with an Ubuntu Phone. That does not mean that I am not an Ubuntu fan. In fact, I would it to do well, since more competition in the space is good for developers and the market as a whole. Questions? Comments? Find me on Twitter and Google+. This post was brought to you by Code Journal and Fingertip Tech, INC.
*UPDATE: Thanks to Arthur for pointing out that they did in fact release a netbook running Ubuntu in cooperation with Vodafone. However, they have never released a phone with carrier support.