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Lots of folks think Ubuntu is nuts for coming out with one more phone operating system. The writers at Techcrunch say it doesn't stand a chance. The Verge says Ubuntu and its parent company Canonical are "tracking a terminal trajectory into irrelevance." Our own Tom Claburn was at least willing to give Ubuntu the benefit of the doubt as a late starter with the possibility of being a server to mobile platform for the enterprise.
While reading the Ubuntu phone trashing, I got to wondering whatever happened to that ancient Intel Centrino-based IBM ThinkPad (designed for Windows XP!) I had hanging around my basement. Rather than doing my work, naturally I headed downstairs to my electronics junk heap, and there it was: that old T42.
I dug up the power supply, and after about an hour of fiddling it was running the latest version of Ubuntu -- complete with all the apps I use on my other Ubuntu installs, plus networking and access to the Ubuntu cloud. My faithful disk utility screeched about an imminent catastrophic disk failure, a warning I never take seriously. The laptop might run a bit slow by today's standards, but if I really want to get ambitious I could throw in some RAM and a solid state disk and chug along equal to just about anything out there.
[ Not every gadget showcased at CES is a winner. Here are a few duds: 10 Epic CES Fails. ]
The point of my trip to the basement was to show the value of Ubuntu's model: moving forward while not abandoning the past (and how many vendors can say that?). That's the first of five reasons I believe the Ubuntu naysayers may be wrong. The idea of an operating system extending from the server to the desktop to the television to the mobile phone has been around for a while, but nobody has offered it yet. Ubuntu makes that full-sweep promise at the right price: Free. It's not like Ubuntu is that far behind the curve.
Reason Two: My -- and probably your -- monthly mobile carrier bill. Page after page of inscrutable details and charges (regulatory cost recovery charge, anyone?) that adds up to at least twice what you were expecting to pay.
Will the Ubuntu phone eliminate that morass? Not if it's simply part of a carrier plan. Someday, U.S. mobile service will resemble the European model, where you buy a phone and select whichever carrier best fits your needs. You can switch carriers when your needs change rather than being locked into endless multi-year contracts.
Of course, this is not going to happen anytime soon. Will one of the big device manufacturers be willing to offer an unlocked Ubuntu phone? Samsung is rumored to be ready to offer a Tizen-based phone, so an Ubuntu device isn't that crazy. And I expect the Ubuntu crowd to start figuring out how to take all those old phones floating around, wipe them clean and install Ubuntu -- much as I upgraded that old laptop of mine.
The frustration of having only two carriers to choose from -- both of which are similar in price -- leads me to Reason Three: The rise of competitive carriers. In the U.S., the carrier world is mostly split into AT&T, Verizon and everyone else. But there's evidence that this is changing.
The biggest change will be if Softbank's acquisition of Sprint takes place. Softbank grew up learning how to compete with the likes of Japan's NTT. Also, look at the rise of non-contract phone companies running on other carrier networks. Republic Wireless, for example, uses Wi-Fi wherever possible to offer an appealing no-contract phone, messaging and data plan for $20/month. The catch? It is limited to only one phone: the Motorola Defy XT.
Reason Four: An answer to the IT headache. The mobile enterprise and the rise of BYOD continue to pose a difficult management task for enterprise IT professionals. It may be an ultimate irony that a Linux-based device (Ubuntu is a Debian-derived Linux distribution) is easier to manage and secure than the iPhone or Windows phone. Appeal to the enterprise IT organization was an important part of Ubuntu's phone announcement: "It meets the demands of two key segments particularly well: those who want a beautiful but easy to use basic smartphone and those who want enterprise-grade thin client and desktop capability in a secure smartphone that can be managed using enterprise tools."
Reason Five: The opportunity to be a fast follower. Sometimes we forget just how young the mobile phone market is, and how quickly new models are introduced. Apple, for all intents and purposes, created the market in 2007 (feel free to email me, RIM, Moto, Symbian and IBM Simon fans). The issues surrounding proprietary frameworks, native apps, Web apps and form factors are absolutely in flux.
Eric Zeman offers a rundown of the phones being introduced at CES. While some markets are stagnant or at least predictable, the smartphone business is both evolving and expanding at an incredible rate. The speed with which users buy and abandon phones in search of the next great mobile device suggests that a new OS can find a home in this business, even if it's not a market leader.
Now I want to see how well an Ubuntu phones plays with my ancient ThinkPad.