Why Mobile Linux Fails

Monday Sep 11th 2017 by Matt Hartley
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Despite high hopes from Linux users, the mobile Linux experience still leaves something to be desired.

Mobile Linux is, to be sure, a challenged sector. Over the past few years we've seen a few attempts at bringing a "proper Linux experience" over to the mobile space. Sadly, these efforts haven't met with the success we had hoped for.

This article will take a hard look at why mobile Linux has failed and whether or not it will ever be something relevant for the masses.

No, Android isn't mobile Linux

Before I get into why mobile Linux attempts thus far have failed, I want to clear the air regarding Android. The simple fact of the matter is that Android isn't really mobile Linux.

Yes, the Linux kernel is in use over the top of lots of proprietary stuff right now. But the use of the Linux kernel is going to go away in future Google mobile operating system releases. So even if you consider Android to be proper Linux (which it's not), the entire conversation around this goes away once the new Google mobile OS launches.

Android is a mobile operating system that is based on Linux by using the Linux kernel. When we suggest that something is running Linux, we're referring to a Linux distro. So depending on how you wish to define Linux depends on how you might view Android's relationship with it. Then again, if you asked Richard Stallman, he'd point out that Android isn't free software as it's not using GNU/Linux...but that's an entirely different discussion.

Why Android succeeded: Android was made available to multiple carriers whereas early iOS phones started off with select carriers only (AT&T in the US for example). Additionally, Google made sure application development for Android was as approachable (and profitable) as possible.

Openmoko was mobile Linux

The earliest example of mobile Linux that I remember was the Openmoko phone. This odd device wasn't the most amazing looking thing in the world, but it did allow its users to choose the Linux software stack they wanted to run.

For the time, it was an interesting idea. Sadly, however, it didn't hit the mark with even the most die-hard Linux users. Fact of the matter was that it's a hobbyist device and it never really got past this. Despite its shortcomings, the phone itself did prove that one could run Linux from a mobile device without relying on the major carriers or Android/iOS.

Why Openmoko failed: It was a hobbyist device that failed to address a tangible need. There were also issues with those who bought these devices not getting their phones. You might call it a supply side challenge that was never really worked out. The Openmoko phones were limited in scope, functionality and overall appeal.

Ubuntu Phone was supposed to be the mobile Linux "chosen one"

When the Ubuntu Phone first appeared as a crowd sourcing campaign, I honestly couldn't get my mind around one question: why anyone would want one?

Yes, an Ubuntu phone sounded cool. But what about those of us who are locked into our existing app ecosystems? For me personally, this was a real issue that never seemed like the Ubuntu phone solved.

As the Ubuntu phone evolved into something Linux users could just purchase normally, it stilled lacked in some key areas. One of those areas was performance. Take the Meizu Pro 5 for example.

Unlike comparable Android phones, the Meizu Pro 5 simply didn't offer the same level of expected performance. Worse than that, most of us hadn't heard of this phone's branding much less shown an interest in spending our hard earned cash on it. This lead to minimal market adoption. Like with the Openmoko, we had another mobile Linux dud on our hands. Remember, the Ubuntu scopes were set to be a functional alternative to Android/iOS apps. But this never really took off. Same challenges were also had with the BQ Ubuntu phone as well.

There was some hope that the BQ Ubuntu phone might achieve some ground swell and in turn, get new users on board with the idea of mobile convergence. Unfortunately outside of a limited number of die-hard Linux enthusiasts, this too never really took off.

As things sit now, the best way to enjoy an Ubuntu Phone experience is to seek out support from UBports. Supported devices with UBports include the OnePlus One, Fairphone 2 and Nexus 5 smart phones.

Why the Ubuntu Phone failed: No one cares about convergence. I understand that statement might sting a bit, however I firmly believe I'm right about this. Mobile convergence will only be a "thing" if it's done wirelessly, seamlessly and easily. These are areas where the Ubuntu phone failed.

postmarketOS is our best hope mobile Linux

In order for mobile Linux to really resonate with casual users, it needs to solve a problem. Right now, the biggest issue facing smart phones is planned obsolescence. This means when a device becomes too old and deemed no longer worth updating, smart phones then see their security and functionality updates stop.

This is bad, especially from a security perspective. Planned obsolescence also means we see more perfectly functional smart phones being left in landfills or worse, being resold as a usable solution for those who can't afford brand new phones. Selling an older smart phone that cannot get security updates is simply unacceptable.

A project called postmarketOS is looking to change all of this. Unlike other mobile Linux projects, postmarketOS isn't limited to the Nexus 5 and other off-brand smart phones. You'll note that postmarketOS is looking to support Samsung, LG, HTC and Sony smart phones! Even better, this project is trying to provide these phones with a full ten year life -cycle. This means older phones can be used until they actually stop working vs simply being tossed aside because they're no longer being updated.

postmarketOS challenges that may lead to project failure: Despite some lofty goals, there are some issues the project is still trying to get around. The biggest issue is dealing with security holes in smart phone firmware. The project maintainers at postmarketOS are looking into all possible solutions to combat the issue, but the fact is until this is remedied the security of using postmarketOS remains in question.

Has mobile Linux failed or can it work for us someday?

In the here and now, mobile Linux has been a pretty significant failure in my opinion. That said, I think from this failure we could see success in projects such as postmarketOS or other similar projects in the near future. The key to Linux finding a home on today's mobile devices is by adding value to smart phones that are considered old, but still functional. If we can make that happen, I see great things for mobile Linux in the years to come.

What say you? Perhaps you think that projects that prompt us to by new devices are the better way forward for mobile Linux? Hit the comments, let's talk about it.

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