Has Ubuntu bitten off more than it can chew?

The question is whether Ubuntu TV is compelling enough to have consumers begging for it. Although the interface on the demonstration units looked attractive, the feature list – terrestrial broadcast PVR, satellite integration, extra information alongside TV shows, the ability to resume from where you left off – barely distinguishes Ubuntu TV from products already on the market. The doors of Sony showrooms aren’t being hammered down by consumers demanding change.

The smartphone arrives

Almost a year to the day since Ubuntu TV was unveiled, Canonical was once again inviting journalists to witness another new branch of the OS. A teaser on the Ubuntu website suggested a touch interface, leading many – including PC Pro podcasters – to predict the arrival of the tablet version. After all, with Windows 8 tablets now arriving, it would be easier for consumers to install the OS on their own hardware than it would be on iPads, Android tablets or smartphones.

Yet, smartphones it was. Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth introduced a somewhat contradictory strategy of targeting both low-end handsets and a new category of “super phones”, which would see an Ubuntu handset double as the user’s primary desktop computer. “This is Ubuntu – it’s the whole deal,” said Shuttleworth at the London event. “You can dock this [phone] and get the full desktop with [virtualised] Windows applications.”

Ubuntu for phones doesn’t lack ambition. While the interface has elements that are shared across the different flavours of Ubuntu – the tray of apps that slides in from the left-hand side of the screen, for example – it also has a few unique touches.

Ubuntu on smartphones

The equivalent of the lockscreen, for instance, is a swirling infographic displaying data such as the number of emails waiting in your inbox, or more quirky stats such as the distance travelled on your journey to work. And then there’s Ubuntu’s Head-Up Display – first introduced in Ubuntu 12.04 – which enables users to search for commands in apps, such as typing (or even saying) “sepia” to apply a tint to a photograph, rather than hunting out the correct button or dropdown command.

Most striking of all, however, is this vision of the desktop replacement “super phone” – a pocketable device that sits in a dock on your desk, powering an external display and all the applications you’re used to running in Ubuntu or even a virtualised Windows environment.

Canonical isn’t the first company to try to pull off this trick: Motorola’s short-lived Atrix smartphone attempted to power a laptop-like terminal, but a high price and stuttering performance proved a less than alluring combination.

Silber is confident Ubuntu will be different, with the company laying down strict hardware specifications for the top-end devices. “You can plug your phone into a keyboard and monitor and have a full desktop experience – that resonates well with handset manufacturers and operators, particularly in an enterprise environment, as you can easily see it becomes your thin client, your main computing device. That requires a certain computing ability – a quad-core phone. Our technology story is strong,” she adds.

Yet, Canonical has – at the time of writing – failed to find a hardware manufacturer willing to back its vision. As with the TV market, Ubuntu finds itself unable to buy influence. While Google can lavish billions on buying Motorola, and Microsoft can spend similar sums buying Nokia’s loyalty, Ubuntu is left to slug it out on technical merit alone.

“We can’t buy our way into the market, that is absolutely true,” admits Silber. “We’re up against the big guys – and that’s hard. We can’t do this alone; we have to partner wisely. We believe there are strategic pressures on industry players that make that possible.”

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