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The launch of Ubuntu for phones on Wednesday was not a huge surprise – industry partners had already been sought for the slightly confusingly-titled Ubuntu for Android, which puts a Ubuntu desktop environment on Android phones for use when plugged into a larger screen.

Having gone to that much trouble, it might have been perverse not to develop a mobile OS for use when the phone was not plugged into a laptop/TV dock.

To say that Ubuntu was launched on phones today is something of a gloss – no manufacturing partner has been named, so what we have at this point is a demo of the software on reference hardware. Ubuntu shared plans for a phone release at the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014, although those of an adventurous nature will be able to download the build before that and play with it on compatible hardware.


In the vein of Kubuntu, Lubuntu and Xubuntu, should we call this Phubuntu? Please, not Pubuntu…

In a very Linuxy twist, Ubuntu for phones has caused a degree of confusion among reporters who missed Ubuntu for Android’s unveiling last year, and the two are being reported in some places as more or less the same thing, because Ubuntu on phones will pull a similar trick if plugged into a bigger screen. However, get past that confusion and Ubuntu for phones – that is, the smartphone interface for the Ubuntu OS (as the popular Netbook Remix was folded into the main Ubuntu project) does look pretty fun. Of course, the fact that Android effectively runs on a Linux kernel itself (depending on whom you ask) makes life considerably simpler for aspirant market entrants like Ubuntu – phone and tablet hardware is already essentially set up to play nicely. A phone which runs Android will also run Ubuntu for phones, according to Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth. And, of course, we have already seen Android devices running desktop Ubuntu more or less well.

Where Ubuntu for phones’ rubber leaves the well-travelled Android road is by shunning a virtual machine approach for apps written in Java, instead favoring an approach based on HTML5 Web apps and native code based on QML – the JavaScript-like Qt Modeling Language released by Nokia after its acquisition of Trolltech, the Norwegian group which originally produced Qt. As in so many cases, all mobile roads lead through Espoo. This should at least theoretically lead to faster performance on the same hardware as a Android installation. However, there are so many variables that such a statement should not be made too confidently – at least not without some live-fire exercises.

(An expert in the field notes that QML need not be any faster than Android’s Dalvik Virtual Machine, quite correctly – faced with any such gift horse, it would be best to check its teeth carefully, which will be hard until there are a sold set of real-world use cases.)

Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla

Ubuntu for Phone obviously needs hardware partners and software developers to make its mooted launch on devices happen. However, it will also need users, which may, outside the Ubuntu faithful, be harder to find in numbers.

Apple‘s iOS and Google‘s Android, approaching the market with very different philosophies, share and fight over a dominant section of the smartphone market – Android’s far greater market share contrasting with Apple’s hefty profits as a hardware marker, and its generally glowing (if recently somewhat tarnished) reputation. Behind them RIM’s Blackberry OS husbands a much-reduced market share and plans its comeback with BlackBerry 10. Microsoft is placing its considerable resources, human and financial, behind an attempt to gain meaningful market share in the smartphone space with Windows Phone 8.

Then there are any-other-business mobile OSes, like Aliyun (the Chinese operating system which became the subject of heated debate between Google and Acer as to whether it was a non-compatible fork of Android or a distinct OS) and Symbian, once the sword of Nokia’s conquests, now sheathed with Accenture. Then there are the more or less shadowy plans by members of the Big Five currently without a mobile phone OS to their name.

Put simply, we already have many – probably too many – mobile operating systems. And into this market comes Ubuntu. But not only Ubuntu.

Sailfish OS

Remember MeeGo? MeeGo was to be the next-generation operating system for Nokia’s high-end smartphones, supplanting the ageing Symbian. Then came Stephen Elop’s tenure as CEO, the legendary “burning platform” memo, and the pivot to Microsoft’s Window’s Phone. In the end only one Nokia phone based on MeeGo (or rather, Nokia’s particular implementation of MeeGo) was released – the beautfiul but doomed Nokia N9 – and by the time it was released it was being marketed as a “provocation”. That is, not part of Nokia’s product mainstream.

Some, however, kept the faith. Members of Nokia’s Meego team formed Jolla, intending to keep the Meego dream alive. Fortunately for them, Meego itself, and the Mer fork, was open source. Less fortunately, the Nokia UI – which had attracted plaudits from those who had the chance to use the N9 – was not. So, Jolla developed a new user interface, rolled it up and called the whole thing Sailfish.

Thanks to the Alien Dalvik layer (effectively, a translation layer which allows Android apps to run on non-Android Linux-based devices) many Android apps should run on Sailfish phones, along with the relatively few Meego apps out there – since Sailfish’s native apps are, as you may have guessed, coded in QT/QML. Much is also being made of the OS’ multitasking capabilities.


Jolla? I hardly know’er etc.

Jolla, and Sailfish, have one great advantage built in – there is already a version of Angry Birds compatible with Sailfish devices. Less certain is whatAngry Birds might be played on – the Mer core can be adapted to run on ARM or Intel processor architecture, and the first Jolla hardware is scheduled to be announced in Q1 of 2013.

Tizen

Remember MeeGo? No, really. MeeGo’s senior partners included Intel, as a partner in the Linux Foundation, which saw MeeGo as an opportunity to tailor an operating system to its low-power Atom processors. In a parallel universe, MeeGo became the standard operating system for netbooks, which became the dominant form of mobile computing. In this universe, of course, smartphones and tablets triumphed as the low-power computing method of choice, and Intel is now working with hardware manufacturers to bring smartphones and tablets using its current generation of Atom processors to market from the unfamiliar position of underdog in a market dominated by ARM’s architecture.

However, ideas cannot be destroyed, only transmuted to another form. While the Linux Foundation hosted Meego’s code, the Linux Mobile (LiMo) Foundation produced the eponymous LiMo, a Linux-based mobile operating system which surfaced briefly on some Samsung-made, Vodafone-branded phones before being quietly sundowned. The Linux Foundation switched from Meego to Tizen – which favored HTML5 over QML and Qt for programming – as its project for low-power applications (netbooks, but also potentially tablets, seatback and in-car entertainment systems and so on), and the Linux Mobile Foundation threw in its lot with Tizen also.

Samsung, a member of both foundations, is developing Tizen phones, with a release date set for 2013. The strong implication being that Samsung will use Tizen in place of its former internal Bada operating system, as an internally managed counterbalance to Google and Microsoft, whose operating systems will continue to sit on most of their phones. How many actual devices this will entail producing, and what the interface will look like after the people who brought you TouchWiz have finished with it, remains uncertain.


Tizen 2.0, in alpha, without UI frills, running on a dual-core reference device

 Speaking about Tizen’s possible impact on the mobile market, Nigam Agora wrote on Forbes.com:

A market share loss of even 2% will hurt Apple stock.  Moreover, if Tizen takes off, it will add to the negative perceptions about the  future growth prospects of Apple.

While this is certainly true, I would probably caution that “if the molecules in my leg were to become suddenly gold molecules, I would be a very wealthy but slow-moving man” is also true, but its truth is unrelated to the likelihood that it will happen. Whether this is a very bearish take on Apple or a very bullish take on Tizen is probably a relative question, but Cupertino is unlikely to be manning the lifeboats just yet.

Firefox OS

WHAT IS THIS I DONT EVEN.

Ahem. Sorry.  You know the drill by now. Linux kernel, ARM architecture, should play reasonably nice with smartphones and tablets built for Android. A rebranding of the “Boot to Gecko” project (Gecko being the free and open source layout engine used in the Firefox browser). UI and apps built in HTML5. Built using free and open source components, and entirely web standards-compliant, Firefox OS is in part being developed to make a point – that a modern smartphone experience can be created without app developers or manufacturers having to surrender their sovereignty to proprietary software or closed app stores. Obviously, that point is only proven if it turns out to be a good smartphone OS.

Strategy Analytics have suggested that Firefox OS will account for 1% of the global smartphone market in 2013. This seems aspirational. Many, I think, will behave as they do with web browsers – they wil be sincerely happy that it exists, but will use the option offered by Google.

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