Ubuntu's Tablet Ambition: Doomed to Fail

Monday Nov 14th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu's dreams of being a player in the tablet market appear to be destined to fail.

For several years now, Ubuntu and other Linux distributions have worked to make their Linux releases available as a pre-installed option whenever possible. Some of the most famous examples are the Linspire and Xandros offerings that were once found at Sears and Walmart.

A few years after these flopped, Dell introduced PCs pre-loaded with Ubuntu. However, each of these pre-installed efforts met with an untimely demise. The PC sellers blamed the lack of demand, while others such as myself blamed the worst PC marketing attempts in history.

The pre-installed Linux PC failure in big box stores coincides with the inability to clearly identity the target of who would want the Linux PC. I feel confident in saying this, because other vendors that sell Linux PCs exclusively have done very well for themselves. Even when targeting non-Linux enthusiasts, the target message was always clearly spelled out.

Therefore it stands to reason that Ubuntu Linux could actually do very well presenting itself as an OS designed for desktop/notebook and netbook environments. So why is Canonical bent on getting Ubuntu on to the next generation of tablet computers?

From competitive to ultra-competitive

Considering the countless dollars Canonical has invested in Ubuntu, I have no problem in the company taking whatever course they see fit to develop their OS further. Even their choice of switching from classic Gnome to the Unity desktop is becoming more widely accepted, as Canonical is attempting to find a way to make Ubuntu unique.

Unfortunately, where I see Canonical making what will likely become another failed "Dell-like experience" is in Ubuntu targeting the tablet computer market.

This is a market where iOS and Android have already won the tablet wars. Even once mighty Microsoft has found that any effort in this space is pointless. And despite the painfully clear reality check, Canonical plans to take Ubuntu into this space by version 14.04!

Why? What newly added value does Ubuntu bring to the table? I think it's awesome that Canonical wants to try new things, but at least they already have a foothold in the PC market. Why further delude themselves into believing that anyone will actually want an Ubuntu tablet?

If Canonical knows something that I don't, then that's great. And yet nothing about this plan makes any sense. Why enter a market so late into the game only to offer an experience that is years behind what the competitors in this space already have to offer?

And for those who want a third option, Linux distributions already offer a solid experience. I see a similar problem with Ubuntu entering the tablet market. It's too little, too late.

A niche within a niche

Google's Android tablets already offer a strong alternative to those who would rather avoid Apple's iOS. And thanks to Android's own variations and customizations out there, choice isn't really an issue either.

It is possible though, that Canonical might be looking to take Ubuntu 14.04 into this space with existing Linux enthusiasts. Even though I think the idea of an Ubuntu tablet is a waste of Canonical's resources, it's entirely possible that enough people would be interested.

With all the hoopla surrounding tablet sales over netbook sales, it's easy to see why Canonical would want to make sure they're heavily invested in making Ubuntu as tablet-ready as possible. After all, many experts agree that tablet sales are the future with today's consumers.

Unfortunately, Ubuntu as it stands today is a Linux distribution offering applications best suited for a desktop user experience. Unless Canonical has a massive magic trick up their sleeve that I'm not aware of, their efforts are going to flop hard, especially without access to applications designed for tablet users.

Android on top of Ubuntu

I believe that the people behind Ubuntu aren't fools by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore, it stands to reason that the developers behind Ubuntu fully intend to offer a way to run Android applications in Ubuntu itself.

Sound unlikely? It is possible and it has been done before. Using an Android virtual machine called Alien Dalvik, one could actually run Android software on just about anything.

So why is this important? Simple – because without Android apps, Ubuntu on the tablet is dead on arrival. This isn't a reflection of the great desktop applications offered for Linux users, rather how poorly most of these applications translate into use for tablet users.

Android solves this issue by allowing use of existing tablet-ready applications. All the Ubuntu developers need to do is make them accessible on the upcoming Ubuntu powered tablets.

Netbooks aren't dead yet

Setting aside all the interesting potential of seeing Android applications on an Ubuntu-powered tablet, I happen to believe that Ubuntu on the netbook shouldn't be written off completely. Despite the apparent sex appeal of using tablets to replace netbook computers, tablets are horrid for most computing tasks.

I own an iPad and I use it to watch video and play games. For "real work" however, I find myself drawn to my netbook running Linux.

Why the separation of work and play? Outside very specific venues where a tablet might replace pen and paper for note taking, I've yet to find a way to make it feel as natural to use as a netbook.

Another advantage to using my netbook is that I can choose my Linux distribution. Not only that, but if I need to replace a battery or run desktop OS-compatible software, my netbook handles this need very easily.

The iPad and other tablets I've tested don't even come close to this. Even the most "open" tablets out there present what amounts to a walled garden preventing me from having the kind of access I want to the device.

Lastly, there's the issue of trying to tap the screen to interact with a tablet. Even with a keyboard in use, the tablets I've used still need me to "tap" the screen. I find this immensely distracting.

While it might be that my brain is stubbornly wired to using a computer mouse, the larger issue is that tapping a tablet to make something happen is just not effective for someone who is trying to get their work done.

If Ubuntu has a way to solve that problem in the near future, then that Linux distribution may find its edge over Android.

Enjoying both worlds

Despite finding myself in the minority with my affinity for netbooks over tablet computers, it is entirely possible that Canonical has a few tricks up their sleeve to make sure that the tablet-ready apps are ready to go when Ubuntu 14.04 rolls out down the road. Whether this is done with Android applications or instead by competing with Android, isn't all that clear yet.

Looking back at Ubuntu history as a whole, though, I believe that the Ubuntu developers realize that in order for Ubuntu to succeed, apps are the single biggest focus that must be tackled. Looking at the competitors to Android and iOS, they all share one big issue – a lack of compelling applications to attract users.

Worse yet, because of the lack of users, there are not enough developers interested in creating new and exciting apps for these platforms.

If one thing is ultimately clear, it's that Ubuntu will indeed have to embrace Android applications. Even more critical than that, Ubuntu developers will also need to find a way to clearly show what the advantages to using an Ubuntu tablet OS will be over using Android proper.

While examples like the Kindle Fire have shown us that an Android tablet can indeed be a smashing success, I am willing to bet that by the time Ubuntu makes its way into the tablet space, it may already be too late.

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