The greater the pre-announcement hype, the less important the news.
That's a truism among tech journalists, and it proved true yet again when Canonical announced that it would be producing a Ubuntu phone sometime in late 2013, or maybe 2014.
Canonical did its best to produce a whisper campaign and to offer a glossy video to go with the news. But the truth was, Ubuntu's general direction has been well known for months—at least since Ubuntu for Android was announced in February 2012. The only suspense was whether the announcement would be about a phone or a tablet.
Given the predictability, reactions to the news quickly got down to the basic question: What chances will the Ubuntu phone have when it finally hits the market?
At this point, predictions falter in the face of too many unknowns. The Ubuntu phone is what less-polite times used to call "vaporware," and its final specs and price are still to be finalized. Nor does the public know anything about the marketing campaign that will introduce the product, let alone what competition it might face a year from now.
However, the emerging consensus among those with any industry experience is that Ubuntu faces some daunting challenges. Even on Ubuntu's own mailing lists, excitement about the proposed product is lukewarm at best. Many are settling on a wait-and-see attitude.
This reaction is hardly surprising. You don't need to be an industry analyst to know that the phone market is crowded to the point of saturation. True, five years ago, the first Android phone seemed an equally dubious proposition. But for every success story like Android's, there are dozens of failed product lines. These failures include products from companies much larger than Canonical, including Dell and HP. In such a market, the prospects for any new product are doubtful at best.
Nor does the picture change when you look specifically at the announced selling points of the phone or at Canonical's commercial experience.
In fact, some pundits, both professional and amateur, are already wondering whether the phone will be what makes or breaks Ubuntu. That is probably a little drastic, but such suggestions emphasize the difficulties that the Ubuntu phone is expected to face.
Wanted: A Killer App
The most obvious angle from which to evaluate the Ubuntu phone is its features.
Understanding that most users have limited interested in the operating system, Canonical is not emphasizing the use of Ubuntu in the phone.
Instead, according to the media release, the Ubuntu phone "introduces distinctive new user experiences to the mobile market." Stripped of their marketing names, these user experiences include controls that are dragged open from the screen edges, global search, voice and text commands, HTML5 support and an evolving personal navigation device on the welcome screen.
In addition, the more expensive version of the phone can be docked, turning it into a full-fledged computer.
For the technophile, the result appears to be a moderately attractive product with some welcome features. But although aesthetically pleasing, the Ubuntu phone is not noticeably more so than the iPhone, which already has that corner of the market staked out and has greater name recognition.
Moreover, many have remarked on the influence of Apple's interfaces on Ubuntu's. Few people who have seen both could fail to spot the resemblance. Consequently, rather than getting credit for being something new, the Ubuntu phone risks being dismissed as an imitator—a reputation that would only work to its advantage if it were priced considerably lower than any iPhone.
As for the announced features, none is especially innovative, and the sum does not seem to be greater than the parts. What is missing is a must-have feature, the fabled "killer app" that will make buyers camp overnight to be the first to have the phone.
Not only that, but the controls dragged from the edges distinctly resemble similar features on KDE's Plasma Active. Given that KDE is working on its own Vivaldi tablet, which is likely to be released at least four months before the Ubuntu phone, that means that one of the most innovative features risks being dismissed as another imitation.
No doubt more features will be added to the Ubuntu phone before its release. But the announced ones are only somewhat compelling. They don't seem enough to attract attention in an over-crowded market.
The Dilemma of Distribution
Canonical is not a publicly traded company and chooses not make its finances public. For this reason, little is known about its financial position. Even when Canonical announces distribution deals, the only numbers that are given tend to be units or installations, rather than dollars, pounds or Euros.
However, Canonical's media releases do offer information on business-to-business agreements—for instance, so many copies of Ubuntu pre-loaded on Dell computers to be sold in India or theaffiliate deal under which Canonical receives revenue for displaying Amazon search results.
By contrast, Ubuntu has only limited experience with direct sales. In particular, although it deals directly with individual consumers in its Ubuntu One storage and music services, it appears to have next to no experience with retail markets. Judging from the available information, retail products like Ubuntu TV have been announced but seem to have attracted no distribution partners and have yet to make their way into retail channels.
So far, the same is true for the Ubuntu phone. Its announcement includes quotations from development interests, but none from manufacturers or distributors.
In this situation, Canonical has two basic choices.
On the one hand, it can find manufacturers and distributors for the Ubuntu phone—something that is always difficult with a new product. These potential partners prefer to deal with companies that have a proven record, and Canonical essentially has none that is relevant. Unlike Apple or Google, it does not even have much name recognition outside of the free and open source software community (a fact that is easy to miss if you are part of that community).
Given cash up front, manufacturers and distributors might agree to work with Canonical anyway. But unless they are enthused about the phone's potential earnings, their efforts to promote it are likely to be half-hearted. That means that its appearance in stores is likely to be haphazard, brief and obscure.
Judging from the media release—which practically begs for inquiries—Ubuntu's preferred strategy is to attract partners. However, if that strategy fails, Canonical might decide to distribute the phone online initially through its own outlets. Google, as you might remember, chose this alternative for its first Android phones.
In dealing with the free software community, Ubuntu has frequently chosen to go its own way, so it would have no trouble doing so again. The trouble is, this is an effort in which Canonical's sales and marketing team has previously shown no expertise. Just as importantly, the strategy is probably easier for companies like Google that are many times larger and better known than Canonical.
In all likelihood, do-it-yourself distribution would mean reaching only the existing free software community, which is probably too small to make the Ubuntu phone a success—even if all of it did support Ubuntu (which it doesn't). Nor would success in such a limited market satisfy Canonical's repeatedly demonstrated desire to enter the mainstream of computing.
Once this dilemma was resolved, Canonical would probably be sailing in familiar waters. The Ubuntu phone would need an app store to compete with the iPhone and Android stores, but Canonical could borrow heavily from the existing Ubuntu repositories.
For the rest, in developing a community of app developers, Canonical would be on familiar ground with its experience of organizing and motivating Ubuntu volunteers. But to get to this point, Canonical needs to navigate two difficult choices, each of which has defeated dozens of companies and products.
Just Another Turn of the Cards
No matter what the Ubuntu phone eventually has to offer, the odds are against its success—not because there will necessarily be anything wrong with it, but because most new hardware from first-time manufacturers fails, regardless of the product.
Such are the odds of bringing a product to market: the truly innovative risks being unappreciated, while more of the same risks being lost in the crowd.
What the Ubuntu phone needs—and, no doubt, what Canonical is desperately seeking—is a major partner that can be announced as soon as possible. Let, say, Samsung partner with Canonical and show enthusiasm in the months leading up to the release, and the Ubuntu phone should have a reasonable chance to succeed.
But without the endorsement of a better-known corporation, the Ubuntu phone seems a quixotic effort at best. You might want it to succeed because it comes out of free software and is the obvious underdog, but reality rarely takes our preferred outcomes into account.
If the Ubuntu phone does fail, that should matter only to those within Canonical and Ubuntu. Although Canonical executives talk as though the free software community looks to it for leadership, the truth is that only some still view Ubuntu as the last, great hope for Linux.
As I write, there are half a dozen other efforts being made by projects to bring the Linux ecosystem to phones and tablets, and if the Ubuntu phone fails, perhaps another will succeed instead.
All the same, you can expect the Ubuntu phone to be watched closely in the next year, as everyone waits to see if Canonical can overcome the odds against it.