Android's new ally against the iPhone: Ubuntu

Strong sales of the iPhone 4S are putting renewed pressure on Android to innovate. Ubuntu for Android could give the platform a key capability iPhone is still missing.

Ubuntu for Android
Canonical

Last year was a long time ago for Android.

That was when Google's mobile platform was stealing market share from all the other smartphone platforms -- winning even against the iPhone -- and beating a path toward market dominance.

But Android is now facing a renewed challenge from its archrival. Android's vulnerability against the iPhone can be summed up by looking at the two biggest wireless carriers in the U.S. -- AT&T and Verizon. At AT&T, the iPhone represented 78% of all smartphone sales in the first three months of 2012. At Verizon, which had been an Android stronghold since the launch of the original Motorola Droid in October 2009, the iPhone has picked up over 50 percent of all smartphone sales for each of the past two quarters ( Q4 2011  and Q1 2012).

How'd that happen? Android won over more users than Apple during 2010 and 2011 because Android devices were available on more carriers and there were Android phones that cost a lot less than the $200 base model of the iPhone. But now the iPhone has spread to virtually all of the major carriers and there are now iPhone models available for under $100.

Android badly needs a new advantage against the iPhone in the next stage of the mobile platform fight. It may get it from Canonical's Ubuntu for Android.

The Ubuntu factor

Ubuntu is a friendly version of Linux aimed at the masses. Unfortunately, the masses have never embraced it on a large scale, but it has proven to be usable enough that even your technophobic uncle can easily use Ubuntu to do things like surf the Web, check e-mail, and download photos from a digital camera.

While the iPhone is winning on simplicity, Android is winning on expanded features (and it's still expected to have a 50 percent market share this year). One of those expanded features that the iPhone doesn't have is the ability to dock and act like a computer. Last week we looked at  how Motorola Webtop pioneered this concept . However, Ubuntu has an alternative vision for smartphone/PC convergence and it's teaming with Android hardware makers on devices that will hit the market later in 2012.

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has slowly and quietly evolved the Linux desktop into a legitimate low-cost alternative to Windows and Mac. Ubuntu's focus on usability with its Unity Desktop and Heads-Up Display (which is like a Google search for all of the menus on your computer) has given Ubuntu the simplicity it needs to compete in an era that's about to be dominated by touchscreens and cloud computing.

That's why when Canonical announced and demonstrated Ubuntu for Android at Mobile World Congress in February, it generated a lot of interest across the mobile industry. Users liked the idea of a more full-featured desktop than Motorola's Webtop. Android phone makers liked the idea of using the software to build high-powered multi-purpose devices and make more money off smartphones accessories like desktop docks. And, wireless carriers loved the idea of powerful smartphones running desktop-level applications that will demand more data than ever.

Mobile World Congress 2012 attendees flock to see Ubuntu for Android. Photo credit: Canonical

"The feedback has been great," Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth said. "People that really got their hands on it have raved about it."

After the announcement, the Canonical booth at MWC 2012 was flooded with interest from corporate tech managers, consumers, and representatives from telcos and handset makers. All of them wanted to see what Ubuntu for Android could do. Everyone has seen the capabilities of Motorola Webtop --  as we talked about last week  -- but it's limited to mostly desktop Web browsing and it's only available on Motorola phones. Ubuntu takes the concept a step further by opening it up to more apps and to all Android phone makers.

Shuttleworth said, "Webtop reminds [me] of ChromeOS. It's a browser story. We've pulled off a very different feeling... The full range of desktop apps are there."

When Ubuntu is loaded on an Android phone, the two platforms share the same Linux kernel, so it's not like running two operating systems. The two pieces act like complementary partners. The Android phone functions normally when used as a smartphone or when making calls, but when it docks then the Ubuntu desktop pops up and acts like a standard computer. You can open a desktop Web browser, but you can also install and run standard Ubuntu desktop software for photo editing, word processing, etc.

Because Ubuntu is so lean, the entire Ubuntu software stack only takes up about 2GB, and that includes apps for e-mail, Web browsing, photo editing, music, and other basic stuff. If you install more applications from the large Ubuntu repository of open source apps then that will obviously take up more space, but there's still plenty of storage on most modern smartphones to handle it. While Ubuntu takes up more storage than Webtop, it's also giving you a lot more capabilities.

"The Ubuntu solution is providing a complete PC operating system," said Richard Collins, the Product Manager for Ubuntu for Android. "Canonical has always seen the opportunity for Ubuntu for Android. It's something that's always been discussed, but once the hardware was ready then we realized the timing was good for this. [The software] is mature enough for us to engage with an OEM today."

Before joining Canonical in December 2011, Collins previously worked on smartphones for Symbian -- the operating system that used to power Nokia smartphones before CEO Stephen Elop dumped it for Windows Phone 7 last year.

For Ubuntu for Android, Collins added, "We haven't touched Android at all."

But, while the Ubuntu solution doesn't alter Android, it provides deep integration with Android on the Ubuntu side, and that's where Canonical is bringing value that goes above and beyond what Motorola accomplished with Webtop.

Going beyond Webtop

Here are some examples of the ways Ubuntu integrates with Android:

  • Web pages that you have open on your Android phone are automatically opened in Ubuntu when you dock. It even switches from the mobile site to the desktop version of the site, in many cases.
  • View, search, and launch Android applications from within the Ubuntu desktop
  • Access and edit photos and videos and then save them back to Android
  • Wi-Fi networks and settings are shared between Android and Ubuntu
  • View and search phone contacts from the Ubuntu desktop
  • Use Dialer app to make calls on the phone while docked in Ubuntu
  • Read and respond to text messages with full keyboard in Ubuntu
  • Android calendar app is synced with Ubuntu calendar software
  • Social networking account credentials are synced between Android and Ubuntu

Again, the other thing that Ubuntu has going for it over Webtop is that Webtop is currently only available on Motorola smartphones. In my  Webtop article last week , I suggested that when Google buys Motorola Mobility it could choose to directly integrate Webtop into the next version of Android, which would turn almost every new Android device into a PC replacement.

In the meantime, Ubuntu for Android is bypassing Google and making its pitch directly to Android handset makers. Interestingly enough, once the announcement was made in February, several of the handset makers actually came and sought out Canonical to start the dialog on how to get it on their devices. Canonical said that virtually all of the major Android phone makers are considering Ubuntu for Android.

"We've engaged all the handset manufacturers that we feel were relevant to this solution," said Collins. "They were beating a path to our stand [at MWC]."

Collins said Ubuntu for Android is not something that is meant to be released as a download on the Internet and installed on existing Android phones. It's going to take close cooperation with the phone makers in order to optimize performance of the hardware for each smartphone and to build in all the hooks that are needed for the deep integration that Ubuntu is doing with Android.

Since Ubuntu for Android runs alongside Android, Collins argued that a handset manufacturer can integrate it with a phone that is currently in development without having to completely reboot the product. He said manufacturers that are planning to launch multi-core smartphones this year can still take this and launch with it before the end of the year. While that sounds a little oversimplified, the key is that Collins thinks we'll see Ubuntu integrated into high-end Android phones by the end of 2012.

Collins also said that Ubuntu would love to work with some Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core devices. That's where the possibilities of this type of solution could start to shine through, since performance has been one of the big drawbacks of Motorola Webtop as well as the Motorola Atrix 2 device that Ubuntu of Android was demonstrated on at MWC.

While it's uncertain what Google is going to do with Motorola Mobility once the acquisition is complete, the search giant has said that it intends to run Motorola as a stand-alone business. If that's the case, then Shuttleworth said he's even open to collaborating with the Webtop creator. "I'd love to work with Motorola because I know the courage it took to bring Webtop to market."

One thing that's very clear in talking with Shuttleworth is that he has completely bought into the idea that the smartphone is the future of the PC. His only question was the timing. "It's a very natural step for us to be taking," he said. "[This is] an upcoming phase change. It might take five years. It might take 10 years."

 

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