Will Google's OS Topple the Ubuntu Empire?

Monday Jun 27th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu's lack of a significant tablet presence appears to doom it in this fast-growing space.

In a previous article about Google Chromebooks, I talked about how these machines will compete with other non-Windows (that is, Linux) netbook options.

But one area I did not touch on was the tablet computer market. In this market, Apple dominates. Others are left scrambling to gain a piece of whatever scraps happen to be left.

Unlike the desktop space, where Linux competes primarily with Windows, any Linux distribution in the tablet market faces existing options that already have iOS and Android heavily embedded.

iOS and Android leave little room for competing alternatives. And with Linux distributions like Ubuntu, I see little chance that they're going to be able to do battle with the existing tablet OS selections -- they're so late to the game as it is.

Don't take my word for it, go ahead and look at your favorite search engine's news feature. From there, you'll discover that Ubuntu is rarely mentioned at all within the tablet space. Where it is mentioned, the response is far from positive.

In this article, I will look at what Ubuntu will need to do to make a quick recovery. Plus how the distro can become more attractive to app developers. It’s possible that Ubuntu could even offer some things not found on existing tablets.

Give me a reason to care

I enjoy using Linux on my desktop PC. I also find ample enjoyment in using select Linux distributions on my netbook and notebook, as well.

Unfortunately when I reach for a tablet, I doubt it will be running Ubuntu or any other community-sourced distro. Most likely I will stay with Android or iOS.

The reasons to stay with the existing two tablet operating systems range from maturity on the device down to available applications. Once our heads are wrapped around this concept, it's easy to see that Ubuntu and other Linux distributions like it will have an uphill battle against competitors already entrenched in the marketplace.

For distributions like Ubuntu to even begin to matter within the tablet space, we'll need to have a clear reason for the end-user to care. Our reason to care on the desktop stems from the control Linux offers us over the alternative operating systems available. Also, the freedom in the licensing provided.

This works because most of us are installing the Linux distribution ourselves. Most people don't buy it preinstalled. This translates into the end-user selecting the hardware they use.

Unfortunately on a tablet, finding companies that will become excited about the prospect of hosting Ubuntu on their hardware is going to be a tough sell. Why? Lack of a compelling app store.

Ubuntu has an app store

By now, many of you realize that Ubuntu does offer something known as the Ubuntu software center. It's a neat idea, but the cold truth is this is just a "pretty wrapper" to install software offered in Ubuntu-offered repositories -- most of which Ubuntu has zero control over. Yes, they host the repositories. However, they're not directly in control of the software being provided there.

Then there is the issue of what motivates many non-Linux app developers in the first place – money. How does the Ubuntu team organically grow app store participation that not only works within the confines of open source principles, but does so in such a way to entice new blood to begin developing for this platform?

Honestly, I don't see a way it could happen. Fantastic new Linux-ready software is being designed all the time, but I've seen little evidence that it's created with the tablet in mind. The only thing that appears to be ready for the tablet in any way is the Unity desktop.

Unity desktop just the beginning

Back in January, there was an article about tablet computing and Ubuntu with Unity. Oddly I have yet to see anything interesting about Ubuntu and tablets since then.

At the time of that article, Unity was a primary focus along with Ubuntu running on a tablet as a proof of concept. Basically it's a fancy way of stating that Ubuntu can run on tablets.

Unfortunately, Unity only solves part of the problem with Ubuntu and tablet compatibility. As stated above, the apps have to be more plentiful for the tablet user along with a clear reason to want to use Ubuntu over Android or iOS.

Since the release of Ubuntu 11.04 and the news of Ubuntu 11.10 no longer offering Synaptic out of the box, it seems clear to me that Ubuntu developers are making a run for the new user. I guess it's accepted that advanced users can either spend their time "fixing" what the developers deemed improvements or just leave the Ubuntu community altogether. Your guess about what the Ubuntu developers intended is as good as mine.

The biggest problem I see is that Ubuntu appears to be addressing the tablet/desktop market with the same application set. This isn't going to work. While Unity may very well mature into something that is worthwhile for both tablets and desktop computers, the applications remain slanted towards the desktop space.

Tablet-ready applications are a must

For any tablet operating system to matter at all, you must have the following things working for you: a decent user interface, a means of obtaining new applications and keeping them updated, and of course, you must have compelling tablet-ready applications in the first place.

Ubuntu has the first two things to some extent, but is lacking on the latter. Yes, they have some great desktop apps. There is no question about that. However, I have yet to see any clear sign that Ubuntu has tablet-ready apps that are going to make me drop iOS or Android.

Remember, I'm a long-time Linux enthusiast. So seeing Ubuntu or another Linux distro competing with the existing options wouldn't hurt my feelings at all. As a matter of fact, it would make my day.

So, what have I found in the way of ready to use tablet software for Ubuntu?

Florence, a virtual keyboard and Easystroke, designed for gesture-recognition on a tablet computer. Sadly, after that I came up empty.

I looked at a variety of possible leads, but everything else that made use of the tablet was in reference to the Wacom tablet for creative art and other similar concepts. So the grand total of tablet-specific applications comes down to a couple of applications. That's it. Anything else, is strictly for desktop software or games.

It's almost like Ubuntu would do better to just give up and stick with the netbook instead of the tablet! Then again, perhaps this isn't such a great idea despite the lack of being tablet-ready.

The future isn't in netbooks

For those who resist change such as myself, sticking with a small netbook like my ASUS Eee is just fine. Unfortunately, though, it seems that the rest of the world is embracing tablets, in contrast to my affinity for a proper keyboard and touchpad.

Even though the tablet is gaining on the netbook at nearly every juncture, I cannot help but feel that this is where Ubuntu could do its best work. Ubuntu might do well to stick to the PC desktop, notebooks and netbooks. They should definitely embrace the server space, as well.

But, please use some commonsense and realize that Ubuntu is so late to the tablet market that they make Microsoft look like trend-setters. (Yes, I said that last statement with great sarcasm. Microsoft is almost as late to the tablet space as Ubuntu is.)

Love them or hate them, Ubuntu has had success in the desktop and server space. But unless the Ubuntu developers can come up with a magic trick that I haven't figured out yet, any play for the tablet market this late into the game is simply going to slow down future development efforts, I think.

Now, I would love to see some random Linux distribution not tainted by Google make a name for itself in the world of tablet computing. And goodness knows there are a number of non-Ubuntu options out there competing for eyeballs.

But it's Ubuntu that bears the brand that most people know outside of elite circles. Yet it's also Ubuntu that is wasting a lot of time and energy that would be better spent focusing on their desktop users instead. There's still plenty of work to be done on that front, why should a distribution spread itself so thin?

Perhaps the answer is less about ignoring tablet computers and more about how we approach the demand itself?

Just install over it

My strategy for getting Ubuntu or other distributions on Android powered tablets is a straight forward one. Take the Wubi-like approach. Make it brain-dead simple to get Ubuntu installed over the Android installation, assuming a method for doing so can be developed easily enough.

The advantages of this approach are huge. First, no more worrying about hardware partners. Just pick a non-iOS tablet and install the distribution. Second, users will be more invested in the Ubuntu installation since they had to do it themselves. Any long time Linux user can surely relate to the vested interest you have in making your system run your way!

And finally, the option of trying another distribution other than Ubuntu later, becomes easy enough as this Wubi-like approach already blazed a path. Much as Ubuntu has become a gateway distro for many new users, I see the possibilities of it doing the same for tablet users, as well.

Are any of these options ideal? Probably not. However, I don't see Ubuntu's current strategy making a lot of sense either. At least my suggestions give Ubuntu developers room to breathe, while allowing Android users an opportunity to try out the idea without investing in a non-Android tablet.

If nothing else, a Wubi-like option is a place from which to grow from. And quite frankly, it's the only chance Ubuntu has against Google's Android OS.

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