Author(s): Peter Bryer
Last week, several Facebook posts and low-key Chinese news articles confirmed that a partnership between Canonical and Meizu still exists, and stated that an Ubuntu-based phone would be released in early 2015 for the Chinese and European markets. The mild proclamation follows several higher-profile announcements about an Ubuntu Touch-based phone from Meizu earlier this year.
Ubuntu is version of Linux developed by UK-based Canonical and the Ubuntu Community of open-source developers. It's enjoyed considerable success in the past few years to become the most popular Linux distribution package for desktops and laptops. However, CCS Insight estimates that the total market share for Linux on PCs is likely to be less than 3% as the operating system continues to primarily attract tech-savvy users despite significant improvements in usability and hardware support. Most builds of Linux are available as free downloads, but the need for the platform tends to be limited to hobbyists on resuscitated or home-brewed computers.
Ubuntu Touch is designed specifically for phones and tablets, and similar enough in code to its desktop sibling that applications for one can run on the other. This enables Ubuntu Touch devices to double as full PCs when connected to an external screen, keyboard and mouse. The single-device approach has been a long-term mantra among some platform and smartphone makers, with the vision for the smartphone processor and software to act as the brain of other things, something CCS Insight predicted in November 2013. The potential for such domain trespassing has shown little market effect so far, but the real test is just beginning as smartphone hardware reaches a level of competitive robustness and as key productivity apps appear across all form factors.
When Canonical's partnerships with BQ and Meizu were announced during Mobile World Congress 2014 in February, CCS Insight stated that, in a similar way to its PC domain, the platform would face a significant struggle to establish itself as anything other than a niche. Ubuntu is the frontrunner in the Linux consumer space, but its leadership position is a very thin slice in an increasingly competitive environment.
Demonstrations of Ubuntu Touch on handsets appear compelling, but the mobile operating system is appearing alongside other second-level platforms and variants like CyanogenMod, Jolla's Sailfish OS and Firefox OS. The most significant challenge is perhaps from Microsoft, as Windows Phone is free to many device makers — even Microsoft is forced to use extreme measures to establish mass in the current Android–Apple duopoly.
Ubuntu has a running start expanding into the mobile domain, with a solid library of apps and development tools and an army of enthusiastic developers. The time between announcements from Canonical and Meizu could mean that the ambitions for Ubuntu Touch have been scaled back — developing the platform to market maturity might have been more challenging than anticipated. However, development delays aren't unusual, and the tempered expectations could allow the two to knock the kinks out of the platform without much attention.
The smartphone market has its long-tail opportunities, and no industry is impervious to a disruptor. There's been no shortage of failed challengers to the mobile operating system environment, and it's been tough even for companies like HP and Samsung. However, recent success stories from Cyanogen and Jolla show that there's enough audience interest to support specialty houses — every two-party system has its independent voters.