Ubuntu phones to sell for $200 to $400, is this the right strategy?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Ubuntu phones to sell for $200 to $400, is this the right strategy?
Canonical's founder Mark Shuttleworth is one person in the tech world who it seems always has something interesting to say, and today he was at the CeBIT computer expo in Germany, where he definitely had a few good words about the plans for Ubuntu Touch. Shuttleworth talked about the potential price points, and the intended user base, but we have to wonder if the strategy is sound.

Shuttleworth and company have never been shy about aiming high with Ubuntu Touch. The team has always been clear that it wants to see Ubuntu Touch running on high-end hardware, even though it would be usable on lower-end hardware. We all saw the spectacular failure that was the Ubuntu Edge, which could have been any smartphone enthusiast's dream, but unfortunately it couldn't generate the funding needed to make it a reality (though, it should be noted that the fundraising certainly proved the market for such a device, which is likely an argument that Canonical has used when speaking to potential hardware partners.)

At CeBIT today, Shuttleworth also said that Canonical is not aiming to convert iPhone users, who more often have an "emotional attachment to the Apple ecosystem", but rather will be aiming at Android users. Shuttleworth says that non-Apple systems don't tend to have the same "emotional attachment", but there is also a need in that space for a platform that is easy to use, which he says is not something that you would find with Android. In the end, Shuttleworth clarified the target market for Ubuntu, saying that handsets will be selling in the "mid-higher edge, so $200 to $400". The reasoning for this maybe a bit more telling though, as Shuttleworth went on to say:

This is very interesting, because it points to the marketing strategy for Ubuntu, but it is a somewhat controversial strategy. Consider these two points: 

  1. The high-end smartphone market is becoming saturated, meaning the growth potential is in the low-end. 
  2. The PC market is shrinking.

We've seen it in plenty of areas and with quite a few manufacturers: aiming at the high-end doesn't really work with smartphones. HTC nearly ran itself out of business by abandoning the mid and low-end markets before deciding this year to re-enter those spaces. Windows Phone has been showing great growth numbers over the past year, but almost all of that movement comes in the low-end market. Even Samsung relies heavily on a myriad of low-end smartphones released around the world in order to maintain the revenue that it has in the mobile sphere. Only Apple has been successful in the smartphone market without a true low-end option (aside from re-releasing three and a half year old hardware for emerging markets, which doesn't really count given its price tag.) 

But, that's the trick with Ubuntu. Canonical isn't really aiming at the smartphone market, it seems. As Shuttleworth said, Canonical wants "to be selling the future PC". This of course brings us to the second point, which is that the PC market isn't really any better than focusing on the high-end smartphone market, and it could be even worse in the end. PC sales are down almost across the board (once again, Apple is the outlier). The general thinking is that mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are eating away at the PC market, but that doesn't mean that mobile devices are necessarily replacing traditional PCs. However, that is exactly what Canonical wants to do with Ubuntu. 

A convergent opportunity? 

While many users have found that tablets are good enough for the majority of computing uses (checking e-mail, browsing the web, consuming content, and some light gaming), there are also some users who still need a traditional PC for a variety of uses (mostly more advanced things like photo/video editing, or more hardcore gaming). The first group greatly outnumbers the second, but the second group is far more outspoken (as you will see in most Internet message boards and comment threads). The question is whether Ubuntu will be able to fill the needs of both groups, because while the more tech advanced may be the minority, they hold a lot of power because they are often giving advice or flat out making the decisions for the more casual computing group. 


This is important for a couple of reasons. First, Ubuntu is a Linux system, which still has the reputation for being less user friendly than options like Windows or Mac/iOS. Android has been by far the most successful Linux-based system, but Android doesn't yet have a presence on traditional PCs (though that is supposedly on the way). Casual users will need fears of switching to be soothed in order for Ubuntu to see more mass adoption. A big part of this will be in software, and by that we don't necessarily mean the OS software, but rather the apps and games available. 

Unfortunately, this has traditionally been a weak point for Linux distributions. While Linux has always offered a substantial selection of quality apps, it doesn't have the brands that people are used to seeing. There is no Microsoft Office, no Photoshop, and no iTunes. Instead, you'll find OpenOffice, GIMP, and Rythmbox or Banshee. This shouldn't necessarily be that big a deal, but it usually is. It was the same issue that Android faced in its early days, and the issue that Windows Phone is currently facing - the apps are there and they are good quality, but they are off-brand. 

The other issue is in games, which has always been seen as the weakest point of the Linux platform. But, Canonical has been working extremely hard to fix that by working with Valve to bring Steam to Debian distros of Linux, like Ubuntu. So far, over 2000 games on Steam have been ported to Linux, and the number continues to grow. Plus, Valve's own Steam Box console initiative is based on Linux, so there is a pretty big name in PC gaming trying to push forward the platform.

However, these are games designed for desktop play with either a controller or mouse and keyboard, not mobile-optimized games for use on a touchscreen. Theoretically, once the games have been ported, optimizing for touch is relatively easy, but that doesn't mean that we'll be seeing Angry Birds, QuizUp, or Candy Crush on Ubuntu any time soon. It is very likely that Ubuntu could get caught in that same vicious cycle as so many other platforms where it can't attract users because there aren't enough games and apps, but it can't attract app and game developers because there aren't enough users. 

Shuttleworth repeated a promise today to have the best apps available for Ubuntu, but that's one of those promises that rings hollow until it is seen fulfilled. 


Secondly, the entrenched power in PCs - Microsoft's Windows - has been showing some signs of weakness. The Metro UI for Windows 8 and Windows Phone has been highly divisive, which has meant that Microsoft's convergence dream has been put on hold. Desktop users don't really like Metro, tablet users don't like the lack of apps for Windows 8 tablets, and while Windows Phone has shown good growth and now has a respectable app ecosystem, it is the most divorced from the other pieces right now. Though there is a fair chance that the walls will break down more in the next month or so with Windows Phone 8.1, which could see WP apps scaling to tablets and mitigating some of the app troubles of the Windows tablet ecosystem. 

Microsoft has pushed manufacturers to build hybrid laptop/tablets that have taken various forms, but none have taken off that much with the public. Aside from the UI, the issues have usually been with usability. Devices with swivel hinges (like the Lenovo Yoga) make for great ultra-portable laptops, but tend to be heavy or too big as tablets; devices with detachable displays or keyboard docks don't always do well as laptops as they tend to need table surfaces for best use as a notebook; and, well, Windows Phones are just that - phones and nothing else. 

Ubuntu is aiming to be slightly different in a few key regards. First, the UI adapts for the use case. This means a phone has a phone UI, a tablet has a tablet UI, and a desktop has the same Ubuntu desktop UI that is recognizable to users because of its similarities to Mac OS. To use the Windows comparison, imagine that Windows desktops didn't have the Metro Start screen or Metro apps at all. Instead, the Metro UI would only exist on phones and tablets, and running that same app on a desktop would present the app in a traditional windowed environment. And, when a tablet is docked to a keyboard, only the traditional desktop UI would be shown. That sounds like a good way to fix some of the complaints with Windows, right? Well, that's the hope with Ubuntu. 

Second, rather than needing to sync data through the cloud in order to bridge the gap between devices, everything is on one device; and, phones don't have to be just phones, they can be everything. We've already seen a phone that can become a tablet with the Asus PadFone devices, but we have yet to see a phone that can become a desktop. Phones can't just have a keyboard attached like a tablet could, and would require a docking station, but the idea of docking a phone and it becoming a full desktop is a compelling one. Especially given that there is no syncing involved because it is all one machine and the apps are all universal. If you have a browser, a game, and a reading app open on your Ubuntu phone when you dock it, those apps will be open with the same data on screen in the desktop mode. 

A new path

Of course, it is unclear just yet whether consumers would really prefer docks over transforming devices. The Asus PadFone hasn't gotten much traction, implying that users are okay with having separate phones and tablets. And, as mentioned before, hybrid Windows devices haven't been that big in the market either. We have yet to see hardware that could do what Canonical is planning for Ubuntu, so it's hard to say how the market will react, because Canonical is trying something completely new here. 

The interesting thing about what Shuttleworth said today is in the pricing for Ubuntu devices though. He said Canonical would aim for the "mid-higher edge" with devices between $200 and $400. The question is exactly what that means. If it means that mid-range/upper-mid-range devices are in that price point, that's one thing and not much different from what we see in the smartphone market right now. But, if it means mid-range devices will be around $200 with high-end devices around $400, that is something completely different and very interesting. 

Let's assume for a moment that Shuttleworth meant the latter. This would mean you could purchase a high-end Ubuntu smartphone for about $400, then all you would need is a dock, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse in order to turn that phone into a full desktop. Assuming you don't have any of those components, if you go for a monitor in the 23-inch range, that would cost you about $150, say another $50 for a mid-range mouse and keyboard set, then we'll go high for the dock and estimate another $100 there. That would mean you would pay $650 total for a top-of-the-line smartphone that doubles as your desktop computer. That's a pretty good deal when the alternative would be to pay $600 just for the best smartphone.

And, with Canonical's vision, suddenly your PC is part of that same two-year update cycle as your smartphone, because your PC is your smartphone. Many people tend to use the same PC or laptop for upwards of 5 years or more, so speeding up that cycle would certainly lead to better overall experiences for PC users. 

Is "good enough" good enough?

Of course, there will be those that bring up the obvious argument against this way forward: the size and heat limits of mobile devices means that there will always be a power gap between mobile devices and traditional computers. Even if you can dock a smartphone to get a desktop environment doesn't mean that you'll suddenly have specs that can compete with what you'll find in a dedicated desktop or laptop. But, that argument brings us right back to the beginning again. 

Whether or not the tech elite want to hear it, believe it, or accept it, the future of computing is not in the best of the best. The future of computing is in "good enough". In the grand scheme of things (and the larger consumer base), very few users need the power for advanced photo and video editing. Most just need the basics of media consumption, minor creation/editing tools, and a quality web browser. And, very few users need a top-notch gaming rig, because most either use a dedicated console, or don't bother playing games more intense than say Asphalt or Badlands. 

This is not to say that the top-of-the-line offerings will disappear, because they won't. The options will always be there for those who want it, but the tech elite don't drive the market, average consumers do. And, average consumers are happy with average performance on a set cycle. That's where most companies are aiming, and that is obviously the market that Canonical wants to hit with Ubuntu. 

But, Ubuntu has a long way to go. It still needs to prove that it can build the app ecosystem needed. It needs to prove that its plans for hardware will work better than what we have now. It needs to show the average user why convergence is important. And, it needs to build brand recognition, which is probably the most difficult of all. Ubuntu has a very small, but loyal following, so it isn't starting from scratch; but, when you're planning to go head to head (to head to head) with Google, Microsoft, and Apple, you need a lot of help and a lot of luck. 

reference Mark Shuttleworth at CeBIT 1 & 2



1. fzacek

Posts: 2486; Member since: Jan 26, 2014

Ubuntu is crap and I don't understand why they would even think about ruining a high-end phone with such a shitty OS.

3. Arthurhkt

Posts: 727; Member since: Apr 19, 2012

if you haven't try it, you shouldn't criticize it as a crap, but indeed if they release with that price without any special or unique function that attract the market, then yes you can criticize them as much as you want. But let us wait and see how it goes first, same goes with Firefox, Tizen and Sailfish.

4. fzacek

Posts: 2486; Member since: Jan 26, 2014

I have a laptop that uses Ubuntu because I lost the Windows XP product key, and to say the truth it can't really do any more than browse the web because the overall layout is horrible and confusing.

10. wargreymon

Posts: 764; Member since: Nov 05, 2013

Win xp? Dude it's 2014 not 2001

12. TechBizJP08

Posts: 495; Member since: Mar 25, 2013

What's your point?

14. Arthurhkt

Posts: 727; Member since: Apr 19, 2012

Ya, i know how it feel, before i start using the Windows 8, i did try the Ubuntu 10, but frankly speaking, i did agree as what you say for the Desktop counterpart, other than browsing internet, really not much thing for me(Well, maybe I don't really know how to use it), but still Ubuntu for Mobile is for smartphone, since we haven't try it, we should give them a chance to run the course

18. fireblade

Posts: 717; Member since: Dec 27, 2013

only browse the web? Poor you. Do you know something like steam for linux? Or Kingsoft Office? Linux is not bad, dude. It lacks of apps

25. sgodsell

Posts: 7519; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

You can install and run Android on Ubuntu or almost any other distro. You can install and run Windows programs under Ubuntu. You can do almost anything. You just have to have the knowledge. Its not for majority of simpletons that currently work with or use Windows.

22. rfrapp

Posts: 77; Member since: Jun 10, 2010

Ubuntu is a very powerful OS. You must not know how to actually use it. I've been using it for 6 months and I've never had a problem doing what I want to do, even from the start. I find Ubuntu to be a nice transition from Windows or Mac to Linux systems. Plus it looks fantastic in my opinion. An OS can only do so many things on its own; that's why you download apps to do other things, and Ubuntu has plenty of apps currently.

24. sgodsell

Posts: 7519; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

What do you expect from a troll.

2. Arthurhkt

Posts: 727; Member since: Apr 19, 2012

As i try to optimist as possible, it still No and No and NO, unless it is truly bring some game changer(which also worth for the price), then yes, or else it surely will be DOA.

5. fzacek

Posts: 2486; Member since: Jan 26, 2014

$400 for a high-end Ubuntu smartphone isn't actually very affordable, as you can get a new and unlocked Galaxy S4 for that price.

8. pookiewood

Posts: 631; Member since: Mar 05, 2012

where can I get a GS4 for that price? Seriously.

9. pookiewood

Posts: 631; Member since: Mar 05, 2012

NM found them on Amazon. AT&T version $600 though darn!

11. grafic8722

Posts: 1; Member since: Mar 12, 2014

ebay.com/itm/New-Samsung-Galaxy-S4-i9500-16GB-13MP​-Unlocked-Android-Smartphone-Black-or-White/191085​308978?pt=Cell_Phones&hash=item2c7d926c32 and there you have it

6. JMartin22

Posts: 2379; Member since: Apr 30, 2013

With glovebox, I can get the multitasking features that mobile OS offers and keep my Android perks. There's really no room for new competition because you can't be competitive without an established ecosystem. It took Android's Google Play almost 5 years to even come close to the top competitor.

7. PBXtech

Posts: 1032; Member since: Oct 21, 2013

I'd have to see more vids of the UI before making a final call, but so far it looks very intuitive and user friendly once you get the learning curve down. Not sure I like accessing/opening apps though. Of all the top OS', I think Android's app drawer gets it right the most. iOS leaves you with pages and pages of apps, and WP relies HEAVILY on vertical scrolling to open apps. Ubuntu leans more towards the vertical WP approach from what I've seen. I still prefer to have a home button of some type as well. User preference. As for the strategy of high end phones? Why not? Ubuntu provides a wealth of capability so having it on high end devices only makes sense.

13. apis10

Posts: 15; Member since: Feb 12, 2014

cheaper is always better...

15. B3BLW29

Posts: 238; Member since: Mar 02, 2012

Cant wait for one...Bring it on :)

16. tenzin

Posts: 111; Member since: Dec 20, 2013

Long time since ubuntu mobile was out and still can buy it. Shame on canonical

17. tenzin

Posts: 111; Member since: Dec 20, 2013


19. nbringer

Posts: 180; Member since: Sep 11, 2012

Canonical has one big problem: Microsoft. If Microsoft decides to copy/paste their strategy into windows 9 then Ubuntu will be stuck at best.

20. nobrainer

Posts: 16; Member since: Feb 11, 2014

i think its a great idea - just not too sure if "average" consumer is ready for it and if they gonna understand the idea and accept the alternative apps to the branded ones.i think Mark is on to something and i think all the geeks and nerds which we all are will appreciate it cos i cant wait to see first ubuntu phone!

21. WindowsiDroid

Posts: 138; Member since: Jul 22, 2013

Lack of apps in WINDOWS 8? or Windows Phone 8? Coz I can install 3rd Party apps in Windows 8 Tablet. You know its just like a Laptop, the only thing is it does have touch screen panel.

23. jroc74

Posts: 6023; Member since: Dec 30, 2010

First a few days ago an analyst basically says iPhone users are rich so they can afford to pay higher prices for new models....then Mark Shuttleworth says Android isnt easy to use... Whats up with ppl still living in 2007, 2008, 2009? I thought these stereotypes would have disappeared by now...and funny a Linux guy saying Android isnt easy to use...I wouldnt expect that from someone involved in Linux desktop OS's. Even one thats as easy as uBuntu...it isnt easy top to bottom.

26. SemperFiV12

Posts: 949; Member since: Nov 09, 2010

Credit where credit is due... although there is a ton of speculation, this is a great article. Enjoyed reading this very much, fine job indeed Mr. Michael H. Very intrigued with this... I think Ubuntu's heart is in a great place, I just don't think they can gain much traction. I will definitely be looking to give it a go, but they will need to mature the OS and work very closely with the big companies they (and their users) despise!

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