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Android woes could be an opportunity for Ubuntu smartphones

07 Mar 2014

V3's Dan RobinsonCanonical announced in February that it plans to release smartphones based on its widely used Ubuntu distribution of the Linux platform are back on, with the first devices expected later this year.

This triggered eager anticipation among some members of the V3 team, including yours truly, as Canonical's original vision for an Ubuntu phone sounded like a compelling prospect, as well as a novel one for those of us who have seen smartphones become ever-more generic over recent years as vendors try to copy Apple's formula for success.

First disclosed early last year, Canonical proposed a version of Ubuntu with a touch-optimised user interface that could run on high-end smartphone hardware. While some mobile platforms, notably Android, are already underpinned by the Linux kernel, Ubuntu for phones was going to be the real deal; it would be able to run full Linux applications as well as HTML5 web apps optimised for mobile devices.

This duality was planned to extend to the hardware as well. Canonical's vision was that an Ubuntu "superphone" would function as a mobile handset while the user is on the move, but in the office it would slot into a docking cradle and morph into a full-blown Linux PC connected to a desktop display, keyboard and mouse.

For us here at V3 – whose parent publishing company has just decided to adopt a hot desking policy – having one device that can serve as both your phone and computer suddenly seems to make more sense than having to carry around a separate smartphone and laptop.

And it isn't just tech writers who will be interested in such a device. With Linux now an established part of the internet infrastructure, IT professionals are likely to find an Ubuntu phone a useful tool in their inventory.

There is a precedent here. When we reviewed Nokia's Linux-based N900 mobile device a few years back, we found that it was being used by IT staff as an administration tool for troubleshooting servers, as you could open a terminal window and key in Linux shell commands directly.

Sadly, Canonical's plans seemed to falter for a while last year, after its scheme to crowdfund its own Ubuntu Edge handset failed to meet the required level of pledged donations. Undeterred, however, the firm has returned to working with partners to bring the first handsets to market instead.

The initial smartphone partners for Canonical are BQ and Meizu, which are not especially well known in the wider marketplace, but then few people had ever heard of HTC until it started pushing its own-brand devices instead of manufacturing them for others.

And if the Ubuntu phone proves a hit, we can expect other vendors to take an interest, especially if the rumours are true that Google is beginning to turn the screw on Android licensees and force them to install more and more Google-specific apps and services on top of the operating system itself.

Meanwhile, concerns about Android's numerous security issues are starting to rise further up the corporate agenda, with a recent poll on V3 showing that many readers believe Android will never be fit for enterprise use.

In contrast, Linux has a much better reputation as far as security goes, and Canonical has said that its phone, tablet and desktop platforms will all have converged by the time the first handsets go on sale. In other words, the mobile platform will have the same code as the desktop version, with the same security.

Canonical itself believes that much of the market for Ubuntu phones will come from disaffected Android or iOS users, rather than BlackBerry or Windows Phone. Perhaps all it needs is a big vendor with business credentials to back it in order to gain some traction, with Motorola a possible candidate now that it is being sold to Lenovo.

Could Ubuntu be the next big thing in the mobile market? Let us know your thoughts below.

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Daniel Robinson

Daniel Robinson is technology editor at V3, and has been working as a technology journalist for over two decades. Dan has served on a number of publications including PC Direct and enterprise news publication IT Week. Areas of coverage include desktops, laptops, smartphones, enterprise mobility, storage, networks, servers, microprocessors, virtualisation and cloud computing.

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