Is Ubuntu Linux Too Late to the Mobile Game?

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Canonical certainly delivered some exciting news this week when it announced that its Ubuntu Linux distribution is on the way to tablets, smartphones, and TVs.

There's no denying that this is big news for Linux in particular and for mobile users in general, but it's not exactly surprising. After all, much as Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth might have appeared indifferent to the mobile space in recent months, Ubuntu's new, touch-enabled Unity interface was nothing if not writing on the proverbial wall.

Now that the plans are explicit, however--complete with a roadmap and everything--it's hard not to wonder if seven-year-old Ubuntu's late entry into this area is going to be a serious problem.

As a fan of Ubuntu, I'll definitely be rooting for the open source operating system every step of the way. At the same time, I can see both pros and cons here regarding its chances for success.

The Cons

1. Time

The most obvious challenge, of course, is the fact that these new Ubuntu devices aren't expected to reach the market until 2014, when Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is released. In an industry where things change quickly, that's a pretty long time from now. By then, the current leaders in the mobile market could potentially be even more entrenched.

2. Competition

Speaking of market leaders, it's pretty clear Ubuntu devices are going to face extremely tough competition from devices based on Linux-based Android as well as Apple's iOS. This is especially true, of course, in the tablet arena, where Apple's iPad is still the dominant player.

3. It's Relatively Unknown

Much as Ubuntu is the No. 1 Linux distribution in popularity, according to DistroWatch, the fact remains that it's still relatively unknown to most mainstream computing users. That's a problem that's been overcome by others before, of course, but it still means Canonical will potentially face a bigger challenge than did Microsoft, say, when it introduced its first Windows tablets. In Canonical's case, the operating system and the very brand itself are going to be new and at least initially unfamiliar. That could affect not just consumers' willingness to try the new devices, but also retailers' willingness to carry them.

The Pros

1. Time

On the positive side, while it's true that Ubuntu will be late to market, it isn't like it's starting right now from scratch. It's been working on its touch framework and Unity for a long time with mobile devices in mind, Shuttleworth admits, and the technology has matured considerably.

Canonical has also been talking with potential hardware partners for more than a year already, Shuttleworth said, so plans are under way in that respect as well, creating a good possibility that Ubuntu will hit the ground running. It doesn't sound like it will be long before we start seeing prototypes and demo models, and brand-name hardware partners could go a long way toward easing any retailer concerns.

And who knows what may come between now and 2014? First movers are not the only ones that can succeed in an industry, as countless examples have proven before. Things change and evolve, and Ubuntu could hit the market on the cusp of something new that makes it just the perfect time.

ubuntu cloud
2. Great Technology

There's no denying that Ubuntu's technology is rock solid and extremely flexible. Its desktop distribution has reigned at No. 1 for good reason, and its server and cloud strength could bring a lot to mobile offerings on the back end.

3. A Strong Backer

Canonical may not yet be a market force like Google, Microsoft, or Apple, but it has a leader who's determined and has a real vision. Working to a slogan like Avis's “we try harder” could propel Ubuntu ahead of its competitors in the eyes of partners, retailers and users.

4. A Fresh Face

Ubuntu won't be a familiar name to most, and while that can be a disadvantage, it can also open the door for users to form fresh impressions without prior conceptions about the technology or its maker.

5. The Openness Trend

Much of the computing world is clearly still dominated by closed-source players like Apple and Microsoft, but there is a growing trend toward free and open source software and openness in general. Ubuntu could find itself in the right place at the right time with its open mobile offerings.

Will the pros be enough to outweigh the cons? It's still too early to tell, of course, but I'm thinking they have a good chance. What's your opinion?

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