Welcome to the future. The future is now. It's early 2013 and it's already starting to look promising for Linux. How? Canonical + Ubuntu + Smartphones = Promise. Now, that promise comes with a few asterisks, but the promise is certainly there.
What, exactly, is happening here? It's something most of the naysayers said 'nay' about most often — it's Linux on mobile devices. The reality of this dream (one that is now coming true) is that it's 100% fiction-free as of yet. But, for the moment, let's dig into what you need (or want) to know about Ubuntu on smartphones.
This is not Ubuntu for Android
There is already a product, Ubuntu for Android, that can be installed on your smartphone. This version of Ubuntu is installed alongside Android and doesn't make itself known until the phone is docked — at which point, you see a full-blown Ubuntu platform on your monitor.
Ubuntu on smartphones is a complete replacement platform for Android. It's a full-blown desktop operating system with a smartphone-centric interface (not Unity).
At the moment, there are no solid release dates. It has been said that, within the month, a release of the build for the Galaxy Nexus will be available. This means users will have to install the platform themselves. By the end of 2013, there should be versions of Ubuntu for many devices (including some tablets). Mark Shuttleworth (of Canonical) has stated that he hopes that sometime within 2014, consumers will be able to purchase smartphones running Ubuntu.
That is where the 'gotcha' comes. As of now, not a single carrier has come to the head of the line to run with the idea of selling an Ubuntu-based smartphone. Does that mean it won't happen? No. I feel confident there will be a few devices available, through carriers, in 2014. Most likely, the carrier will be the forward-thinking Verizon. I cannot possibly imagine AT&T will have any interest in offering a platform to dig into its cash-cow iPhone.
As you can see, on this Ubuntu page, the makers of the platform are calling out for network operators, OEMs, and ODMs. This is Ubuntu's online "dog and pony show" to entice providers. Canonical should certainly be pimping the video on this page to help them attract those OEMs and ODMs. At the 6:38 mark, Shuttleworth dives into the Ubuntu Phone and shows off what it can do. Give a watch to that video and you will see why I say there will be a carrier for this platform.
The 'docked' version
Like Ubuntu for Android, you will get to enjoy the full-blown Ubuntu desktop when you dock your phone. This, of course, means any handset maker will also have to create a dock for the device. I've used a platform similar to this — with the Motorola take on the dockable device — and found it severely lacking. This lack was mostly from an under-powered device trying to push graphics and apps to a larger screen. Also, the Motorola take on the docked version was actually less useful than the mobile version. Ubuntu's iteration of the docked device, should solve most of those issues.
My thoughts on what to expect
I've been spouting off about how, if Linux is to make any headway in the mobile market, it has to happen this year. Thanks to Canonical, it looks like this might well come true. What I see happening with this is users getting to experience what Android would be like if it were completely open and the mobile platform fully unleashed to take advantage of the power and flexibility Ubuntu offers.
My honest predictions are this: Canonical is going to deliver what might be the single most powerful and flexible mobile platform to date. Ubuntu on smartphones will have consumers drooling over what it can offer. The big hurdle will be the carriers. Entering the mobile space at this time, with iOS and Android pretty much filling every dance card, will be a challenge. Unfortunately, for Ubuntu for smartphones to have a chance to gain any traction, it's going to require a major carrier to pick it up. This means Verizon or T-Mobile (sorry AT&T, you've already proved yourself too slow and backward-thinking) must step up to the plate and take a chance. Should either one of those carriers see that Canonical has something truly unique, and decide to offer both a low and high-end device, Ubuntu for smartphones will be a huge success.
However, should Ubuntu for smartphones only be picked up by a niche carrier, this brilliant execution of a marvelous design will falter.
I look forward to the possibility of getting my hands on a smartphone driven by Ubuntu. As soon as a ROM for the Galaxy S3 arrives, I'll be on that baby like a Geek on Battlestar Galactica!
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 getjackd.net.