Ubuntu for Android shows us the future of computing
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Did everyone see the news yesterday? It would have been easy enough to skip over the story, but Canonical announced its idea for bringing Ubuntu, and therefore Linux, to mobile devices (and we're talking proper Linux, not just Android). If you don't count Android (as most Linux users wouldn't), Linux is the last major desktop OS to make the transition to mobile. The strange thing is that with Ubuntu for Android, Canonical isn't exactly creating a mobile OS, just a way to easily transition from mobile to desktop and back. This sort of straddling the line has both its advantages and disadvantages, but still gives us a view of what the future holds for computing.
Canonical will be showing off the Ubuntu for Android software in full at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week. Of course, we should have known that Linux makers wouldn't sit back and let Apple, Microsoft and Google take over the tablet space; and, we should have known that Ubuntu would be the first Linux distro to really push to make the leap. What we couldn't have seen coming was that Canonical would not only bring Ubuntu as a player to the game, but give us a sneak peek into the future of computing. And, we mean all computing, not just desktop or mobile. This is the future.
Technology always moves in cycles. First, there will be a period of specialization, followed by a period of convergence. The basic idea behind this is fairly simple: you need the individual pieces to exist before you can bring them together to create the best possible whole. The digital media player, digital camera, touchscreen, smartphone, tablet, and notebook computer each had to exist and mature a bit before this newest boom in smartphones and tablets could happen, because each is an integral part of the convergence in technology that we're currently seeing in mobile. Right now, because of the Internet, the cycle has been supercharged and is happening at break-neck speed. All in the course of just a few years, we've had the drop in traditional desktop PCs, the surge in smartphones, the rise and fall of netbooks, the rise of tablets, the beginning of ultrabooks, and the introduction of a number of other "smart" devices with TVs and gaming systems that can pull multiple functions. Some devices are highly specialized like netbooks, some began life as specialized but are becoming more general in use like tablets, while others try to bring together a number of uses into one device, like smartphones and modern gaming systems. And, throughout it all, we've had to try to figure out what platform and use case works best for each type of hardware. However, we may be seeing more specialization with hardware, but we are seeing more convergence with the platforms and software that run on that hardware.
In a period of convergence, it makes sense that we have one platform to cover all various hardware models. Or, failing that, at least have a unified and cohesive way to quickly and easily move from mobile to desktop and back. Of course, Canonical isn't alone in trying to make this happen with Ubuntu for Android. We've seen Apple slowly narrowing the gap between OS X and iOS, and the prevailing theory is that Windows 8 will not just run on PCs and tablets, but at the very least the kernel will be the same all the way to smartphones. Theoretically, this would mean interaction and crossover use with apps on any screen. The difference is that what Microsoft is building is still theoretical at this point, and the best practical application of this convergence that we've even heard so far is that Windows Phone apps would run like widgets on Windows 8 devices. Otherwise, we really have no idea what the usage will actually be like. That's not to say that Canonical's solution is perfect either. There are a number of issues that could seriously hinder the success of Ubuntu for Android, but the overall idea is still the same: one platform and, more importantly, a familiar experience from device to device.
The key to Ubuntu's idea is that it isn't just a modified experience from one device to another or even that it's a unified experience, like we've seen with some dual-boot tablets, or dual-use tablets like the Asus Transformer or the Webtop option with the Motorola ATRIX. The problems with those options was that they were trying to force a different use onto established platforms. The Android experience, from the base to the apps and all through, is designed to be used on touchscreen devices. Sure, adding a keyboard to that can make certain things easier, but it still means that we're trying to force a platform into a different usage. This is exactly why even though Windows had been on tablets well before the iPad came around, it never garnered any traction in the market, because it was a decidedly desktop OS being forced onto a new piece of hardware.
That is where things get very tricky. iOS in its current form would be terrible on a laptop or desktop, just the same as Windows XP was terrible on a tablet. The interesting step that Canonical is taking is that it isn't trying to force Ubuntu onto tablets or mobile phones, and isn't trying to force another choice into an already crowded market. When using a mobile device, you will be using Android just as you've always known it, but when you dock the device is when you get the Ubuntu experience with the Unity UI. In this way, consumers will get familiar experiences in each situation without needing to learn a new platform, but underneath it all is the same Linux kernel running the show.
The way that Canonical is creating cohesion is by utilizing that kernel to provide interaction with apps and have your data sync across instantly. This means that not only will you have your contacts and access to certain apps like the dialer or messaging apps while docked, but open tabs will sync from your mobile browser to Chromium, and other pertinent information and data can transfer into the Ubuntu equivalent from Android. But, the question is really just how seamless and easy this experience will be. From the way Canonical explains it, everything should be not only seamless, but essentially instantaneous when moving between Android and Ubuntu. This is nothing new as a promise, but would be an incredible feat if Canonical could make good on that promise. Unfortunately, the road ahead is not an easy one.
This seamless experience is no doubt what both Apple and Microsoft are aiming for, and that is just one thing working against Canonical in this endeavor. Not surprisingly, the biggest hurdle that Canonical faces with Ubuntu for Android is the same one that every Linux distro faces: user adoption. More than any other distro, Ubuntu likely has a bigger established user base of casual users, but that still doesn't add up to a big number. When talking about PC market share, most people don't even bother mentioning Linux because it is such a niche platform with so many different flavors. Overall, Linux still only makes up somewhere around 1-2% of the PC market, and within that 1-2% there are dozens of distributions based on different graphical displays and package management systems, which are for the most part incompatible. People may claim that Android is "fragmented", but at least the same apps work across any iteration of Android. The same cannot be said about desktop Linux.
Ubuntu will likely be able to leverage the immense popularity of Android to make some headway in market share, but it is still coming from far behind. Even with the success of iOS devices, Apple has had a tough time pulling users to its Mac products, and has only made a relatively small gain in market share, because it is so different from what users know and are familiar with in Windows and requires a leap of faith by users. The difference is that Apple has designed its Mac products to be as easy as possible for people to use, so once that leap of faith is made, users generally find it easy to transition. Linux has made some great strides as far as usability, and Ubuntu is especially easy to get into, but for anything more than the most basic computing needs, the learning curve is still far steeper there than with Apple or Windows. Worse than the hurdle of getting users to accept the move to a Linux environment are all of the issues that cascade from this lack of user adoption.
The biggest issue that comes from a smaller user base is in developer support. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Ubuntu apps are not written for ARM processors, and ARM is by far the dominant processor used in mobile devices. This means that until Intel makes some headway in the mobile device market, it is on developers to port their apps for use on Ubuntu for Android. As we've seen with a number of platforms, the low adoption rate/developer support loop can be a vicious cycle. Early in Android's life, developers wouldn't work on the platform because the users weren't there and users weren't there because there were no quality apps. Windows Phone looks like it has made the turn with jumps in adoption rate as well as the fastest growing app store around, but it has been seeing similar troubles with user adoption and developer support. One of Apple's biggest keys to success has been getting the support of developers throughout the life of iOS and having established apps ready to go for the transition from iPhone to iPad. If Canonical really wants this experiment to work, it needs the support of developers to make that happen.
The other trouble facing Canonical in this endeavor is what we mentioned earlier: the first mover disadvantage. Traditionally, the first company to make a bold move like this in the tech world has not been the one to find ultimate success in the market. Apple made the first PC, but Microsoft eventually took over the market. Nokia and RIM made the first smartphones, but they lost the commercial market to Apple, which in turn has lost the market to Android. Conversely, the late-mover advantage allows a company to see how a market is developing and adjust its strategy and products accordingly. Apple was not the first to market with an MP3 player, and now the iPod is the defacto choice for anyone still looking for a dedicated media device. Canonical is the first to really pull together the desktop world with mobile, and it will be able to leverage Android's success to a certain extent, but unfortunately, it's hard to see this becoming the dominant solution.
There is no doubt that many tech geeks have been having nerdgasms after hearing the news from Canonical about Ubuntu for Android, and certainly we are excited for the possibilities, but that excitement doesn't mean that it will be able to create lasting traction in the market. Microsoft is also on the same path, and that is a very tough train to derail. We would love to this be a catalyst to push Ubuntu forward in the market and make it a real competitor to Windows and OS X. Certainly, the tie-in to Android could help in that endeavor, but more than likely this will become a solution for a small set of users.
However, we say that specifically for Ubuntu, because what we're seeing really is the future of computing. It's hard to not give the nod to Microsoft in this race, because while the smartphone market may be booming, and mobile device sales are beginning to rival traditional PCs, Microsoft's Windows install base can be a huge advantage when reaching those who have yet to jump into the world of smartphones. But, ultimately, converging traditional computers with our new mobile devices is new territory, which means that it is really anyone's game. Apple has been huge in the mobile space, but still slow in the PC space. Google has been enormous in the mobile space, but has virtually no PC presence at all. And, even there, it makes far more sense to pair Android with Ubuntu than it does to pair Android with Chrome OS. The web has come quite far as a platform, but if there is Chrome for Android, a pairing with Chrome OS just seems redundant and adds no real value. Microsoft has a small, but quickly growing mobile presence, and a gigantic and entrenched PC presence. The trouble is finding where it all comes together.
The idea of one platform spanning every device that we use, and not just an elegant solution for data syncing and app integration, is a very powerful one, and one that seems to be a logical inevitability. We needed the time of specialization in order to get all of these wonderful mobile and desktop devices that we have these days, but it seems inevitable that there be a better way to transition from one to another in a deeper and more meaningful way than just syncing software. And, that is really the key; software is ultimately malleable, so it makes no sense that we need to have different platforms for each piece of hardware. It is unlikely that we'll see true convergence into one software platform, although the web is the best bet for that, but seeing the various platforms each converge onto themselves makes quite a bit of sense. Right now, we're seeing the beginning of the first generation of unified devices. Ubuntu for Android and Windows 8 will pave the way, and Apple and Google will have their solutions later. But, there can be no argument that Canonical gave us a vision of the future of computing here. Now, it's just a matter of seeing who can make the most compelling solution.