Long known as the standard-bearer for open source operating system (OS) Linux, Ubuntu today faces an existential crisis. These days, Linux has permeated everywhere in the sense that it still remains as a core layer beneath the Android OS. Unfortunately, Ubuntu does not find itself in that equation. Mostly, smartphones are all locked-down – enthusiast open source does not exist unless drivers are available.  

The February 20 announcement of Ubuntu finally making its journey to tablets, and today’s first developer preview of its touch-based smartphones are both a little premature. But Canonical is making the same value proposition that Android pitched early on, before their acquisition by Google: an open source system that any phone vendor can use to build their smartphone platforms on.

Why mobile devices?

The problem so far has been that Linux’s offerings, Ubuntu included, have been remarkably polished desktop products for years but still remained fringe products. With the personal computer market now slowing down, it would be safe to say that to maintain relevance, Ubuntu needs to exist both in the mobile and tablet spaces.  

Mark Shuttleworth, Founder, Canonical, is up against not one but many well-established competitors – Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. What is worse is that each of these rivals has had years to accumulate valuable intellectual property and patents that give them a certain degree of freedom to move around in the mobile space.

Amazon, for instance, offers up-cloud ‘locker’ services for those who purchase music and books from their online stores. Google’s approach is to use its weight to deny their competitors use of YouTube, Maps and Navigation – something we saw in its recent tiff with Microsoft and Windows 8 mobile.  Microsoft too has some ammunition left in the server integration space.

There needs to be enough of a value proposition if Ubuntu wants customers to jump ship at a point when the dock is nearly empty. Integrating a phone and a desktop are novel concepts, and promising compatibility with Android kernel drivers is also a good sign. Where they truly need to go, however, is to quickly tie-up with strong OEM.

A classic example of a failure to do this is how Nokia’s Meego went nowhere, mainly due to a lack of alliances. And if Nokia had not thrown in its fate with Microsoft, it would have been an apt choice as a partner for Shuttleworth.  At the same time, Ubuntu needs to hedge its bets and make a sideways entry into Android – something it has been working on for quite some time.

The true shining moment, however, would be if Canonical manages to kick-start the production of its own e-mail application or acquire a navigation maker like Waze and have them loaded onto popular phones today. If these applications catch on, it could only help the eventual launch of Ubuntu on smartphones and tablets.