Prior to the start of 2013, it seems fair to say that there hadn't been too many major shakeups in the world of mobile operating systems.
Multiple players had come and gone, to be sure, but the marketplace as a whole had really undergone more of a continuous evolution in the 15 or so years it had been around. The entrance of Google's Android, in fact, was surely the biggest disruptive splash in its recent history, resulting in what's effectively been a two-horse race ever since.
Then 2013 arrived, and along with it Canonical's Ubuntu for phones --not to mention the promise of Tizen phones from Samsung soon afterwards. Then, too, of course, there's the prospect of devices running Firefox OS and Open webOS on the horizon as well.
"This is a very chaotic time in this industry," wireless and telecom analyst Jeff Kagan told Linux.com.
Two Market Segments
Canonical's proposition is essentially a single operating system for PC, phone and TV. Making use of all four edges of the screen, the new Ubuntu for phones is aimed at two distinct market segments, Canonical said: the high-end "superphone," and the basic, entry-level smartphone.
Like the parallel Ubuntu for Android project--which will turn a standard Android phone into an Ubuntu PC when docked--Ubuntu phones will also be dockable, allowing them to deliver full PC capabilities.
Canonical has been on hand at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week to demonstrate the new technology, and a downloadable image of the upcoming system will reportedly be available in late February for the Galaxy Nexus device. True Ubuntu phones are not expected before the end of the year, however, and there's no word yet as to which hardware makers or carriers will be involved.
"A Glimpse of the Future"
Much the way Android was greeted with considerable skepticism upon its arrival, so, too, have been Canonical's Ubuntu plans.
"The Ubuntu phone doesn't stand a chance," proclaimed TechCrunch, for example.
"No, we don't really need another smartphone OS," asserted CNET.
"The Ubuntu phone has a speed problem, and I'm not talking about lag," wrote The Verge.
"The Ubuntu smartphone (which no one will use) is a glimpse of the future," opined CNN.
"We've known for some time that Canonical was working on a mobile version of its Ubuntu software; now that it is here, it marks some potential change and disruption in the mobile OS space," Jay Lyman, a senior analyst with 451 Research, told Linux.com.
In its favor, "Ubuntu is open source and flexible with other software, and it benefits from Ubuntu's solid developer community and strength in cloud computing, which will help support mobile Ubuntu users in connectivity, storage and other capabilities," Lyman explained.
In terms of challenges, however, "mobile Ubuntu's success will hinge largely on hardware and carrier support," he noted.
"The fact that Android was Linux-based may help any other Linux-based challenger in the mobile OS space, including Canonical with Ubuntu," Lyman added. "Other challenges include monetization of the software and significant competition from the current heavyweights of the market--primarily Apple and Samsung, which is also ushering in some market disruption by working on Tizen-based smartphones."
"We Are Just Starting the Journey"
Indeed, "as big an opportunity as Ubuntu is for Canonical, they will still be the salmon trying to swim upstream against the larger competitors," Kagan warned. "They are in a very busy space with giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google up against them."
At the same time, Canonical's approach may well reflect a larger shift.
"Think about the way we use operating systems on separate devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones--they are all different," Kagan explained. "As an industry we are just starting the journey to unite these different operating systems into one."
The result will be a computing landscape in which "everything will work the same and store your information on the cloud," he noted. "So even though these things may come from different segments, the operating system ties them all together. That's the world that Canonical's new Ubuntu plays in."
Bottom line? "The computer and mobile world of tomorrow looks very different from the world we know today," Kagan predicted. "What it will look like depends on who wins this new war."