Mobility

Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch: A possible solution for what ails them

Both the Ubuntu Phone and Firefox OS stand little chance of making it in the current mobile landscape. Jack Wallen ponders an idea that might possibly give them a fighting chance.

Chances are pretty good you've heard of either Firefox OS or Ubuntu Touch (aka Ubuntu Phone). Chances are not so good that you've actually seen one in action. There's a reason for that—when first officially released, both platforms aimed low. The Firefox OS set its sights on low-end devices and smaller markets. The Ubuntu Phone had the unlikely misfortune of being first released on an underpowered device (for such a powerful platform). This low-end hardware ensured one thing—the major markets would completely ignore the platforms.

That happened and neither Firefox OS or Ubuntu Phone have made much noise beyond the tiny, fragmented camps of fandom. Now that both platforms face sink or swim situations and they've both finally managed to set their sights high enough to get them noticed.

First the Ubuntu Phone was released on the Meizu MX4.

Or did it? The cold reality was the device was listed on the Meizu site, with the Ubuntu option, for a day...and then it disappeared. Soon after that, the announcement came that the Ubuntu Phone would soon be available across Europe soon. The next announcement was that a US-only device would arrive (details to come in June, 2015).

While the Ubuntu Phone vapore-wared its way in uncertainty, those behind the Firefox OS unveiled a new strategy, called Ignite, to target higher-end devices for the open source mobile OS. This is a very smart move for Firefox OS, simply because the "low-cost" device market is now proliferated with Android devices. So instead of targeting "cost", Firefox OS will target "experience".

On one hand we have a platform that cannot seem to find quality hardware to power a brilliantly designed platform and another that cannot, no matter how hard it tries, find a suitable audience. Both platforms are open source, both have ties to similar camps, both run on top of the Linux kernel ... and both share a similar fan base on the Venn Diagram of mobile life.

Methinks there just might be a solution there—one that may not be popular at first blush, but one that just might solve both of their problems.

Merge.

Consider this: Based on the similarity between the kernels, we're talking mostly a difference in UI and choice of app store. This wouldn't have to be a total re-tooling of the interface. Choose one or the other (Ubuntu Touch would probably be the best choice ... in light of the hunt for convergence) and build a combined app store. Yes, this might set the release timeline back, but the delay would be well worth it. Imagine the creative power behind both teams—each working in conjunction to release a single, open source, mobile platform. Not only would the joint development effort improve (and possibly be expedited), the leveraging power would be more effective in finding vendors for supporting hardware.

The truth of the matter is simple: Separate, neither platform stand much of a chance at making more than a ripple in the ocean of Apple and Android. It wouldn't matter if Ubuntu or Mozilla developed the single most perfect platform on the market, the mark the major players have made on consumers is indelible. Any hopes of either Ubuntu or Firefox making headway into the market are slim at best. What happens if/when they fail? The platform dies.

What Canonical and Mozilla are trying to do is noble. I tip my hat to both camps and have, for the longest time, wanted a Ubuntu Phone for my personal use. The idea of the convergent desktop is exciting, and the UI for Ubuntu Touch is nothing short of brilliant. But no matter how much we want this to come to fruition, the odds are against it. Both Canonical and Mozilla aren't just facing development hurdles and consumer acceptance. Without the backing of solid, large-market-worthy hardware, they will fail.

That is not something I like to say, but it's a reality both might face. Should they combine their efforts, they combine their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Will this happen? No. Even so, it is something both should consider—even if only to realize those major obstacles are surmountable.

The mobile market is choked. Even juggernauts like Samsung find themselves producing the single most incredible device on the market (the Galaxy S6 Edge) yet still struggling against the bottom line. Platforms and devices have become so powerful and user-friendly, that migration to and from platforms or hardware has slowed to a trickle. Consumers, once fickle and ready to jump ship at any moment, are happy with what they have. The latest greatest now has a hard time competing with last years latest greatest.

Ultimately that's the rub. This isn't the desktop market, where there will always be a place for open source alternatives like Ubuntu (and maybe a Firefox desktop OS...hint, hint). We're talking about the mobile market, where cut throat doesn't do the competition justice. If your name isn't Android or Apple your chances are about as good as a third party winning the United States election—possible, though not probable. To make matters worse, if your hardware can't best the current crop of flagship devices, you are out of luck:

  • The Nexus 6
  • Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
  • HTC One M9
  • LG G4
  • iPhone 6

Ever hear of them? Of course you have. If you plan on releasing a new platform, and your hardware cannot come close to those devices, you're already losing the race. Separately, neither Canonical or Mozilla will find companies willing to risk flagship devices on a platform to compete with the two major players. With their forces combined, however, the possibility might tip into the realm of probability.

Might.

What do you think? Could Canonical and Mozilla combine their efforts to create a mobile platform that would stand a chance in the mobile market? Or should both return to what they do best: Desktops and browsers?

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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