Mobility

Why mobile users still have to put up with underperforming operating systems

If the hardware and technology are available, why do smartphones still not have access to full desktops? Jack Wallen takes on this question.

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Image: Jack Wallen

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a colleague about the state of smartphone interfaces. For some reason, I couldn't shake that conversation, so I felt the need to explore it in written form. The conversation centered around a single, simple question: Why is it, when our smartphones are nearly as powerful as our desktops and laptops, are we still relegated to mobile operating systems?

Consider this: The Samsung Galaxy S8 has the following specs:

  • CPU: Octa-core (2.3GHz Quad + 1.7GHz Quad)
  • RAM: 4GB
  • 5.8" Quad HD+ Super AMOLED (2960x1440) 570 ppi

The minimum requirements for the top three operating systems are:

Windows

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster.
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
  • Free hard disk space: 16 GB.

macOS

  • An Intel Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, or Xeon processor.
  • 7 GB of available disk space.
  • 2 GB of RAM.

Ubuntu Linux

  • 2 GHz dual core processor.
  • 2 GB RAM (system memory)
  • VGA capable of 1024x768 screen resolution.

Even a modern, mid-ranged smartphone would have no problem performing with the above specs. Unfortunately, we wind up wasting that power on mobile interfaces that perform half as well as their desktop counterparts. They only marginally deal with multitasking, nor can they run full-blown applications (such as LibreOffice or MS Office).

There have been attempts to remedy this. Canonical worked tirelessly to bring convergence between the mobile device and the desktop. In the end (for many reasons) they failed.

Recently Purism has set their sights on bringing out a phone, the Librem 5, that will run PureOS—a full-blown Linux distribution. Purism has also claimed their device will be capable of running any Linux distribution. That would be a deal maker for a lot of Linux users.

Unfortunately, the device will also require users to know how to setup SIM-based networks. Out of the box (with PureOS) that will work fine. But if you your Linux distribution of choice doesn't make that process easy, it could be a nightmare to get your phone to connect to your carrier's network. With most of the mainstream distributions, that process is fairly straightforward. With some of the niche Linux flavors, not so much. This could be a trade-off some are willing to make to have a full-blown desktop in the palm of their hands. And, of course, there's also the issue of screen resolution. PureOS will be designed to work well with the smaller mobile screens.

But what about your Linux distribution of choice ... and the apps you use? Will you be able to read them on the Librem 5 screen? That's a question for which we do not yet have an answer.

I want the Librem 5 to succeed. I want to hold one in my hand and shout to the stars, "I'm using Linux on my smartphone!" After the debacle that was the Ubuntu Phone, I have to confess my optimism is a bit thread bare. Purism, prove me wrong.

Our past, our present

The reason why we still suffer through mobile platforms that aren't fully capable of doing what we need them to do is rooted in the past. When the smartphone was first released, the hardware was seriously underpowered. Because of that, the UI had to be drastically paired down. My first smartphone was an HTC Hero with the following specs:

  • CPU: 528 MHz ARM 11
  • RAM: 288 MB
  • STORAGE: 512 MB

The above specs might be able to power the likes of, say, Puppy Linux, but that's about it. Toss Ubuntu onto that machine and it would choke. Windows? Laughable. OS X ... no way. The hardware of the time dedicated what the interface could and couldn't be, and do.

That was then, and this is now. Unfortunately, users are very slow to change. The average user has grown accustomed to iOS and Android; both Apple and Google know this, so there is very little impetus to evolve those interfaces into a more standard, desktop-like, UI.

Let your mind wander

Imagine, if you will, the work you could accomplish with a full-blown desktop in your pocket. No more relying on half-baked applications, document compatibility, or multitasking that isn't quite up to the task.

It is my hopes that Purism is able to bring the Librem 5 to light. Even if its market share pales in comparison to Android and iOS, what it will do is prove that it can be done. Once the world gets a gander at what modern mobile hardware is capable of doing, maybe the user bases will demand the same of the major players. The Librem 5 is an intriguing proposal, one that has a chance at redefining the mobile landscape. Although my assumption is that it will be quite the niche-y product, it could at the same time become one of the most important products to hit the mobile market in a long time. Why? Proof of what can be achieved on mobile hardware.

Let your mind wander across that landscape of possibilities. I've longed to have a complete operating system in my pocket. The idea of no longer only being able to handle a portion of my work, when not at my desk, makes for a fascinating proposition.

We have the hardware. We have the technology. A full-on desktop is possible on mobile hardware. The big conundrum is to me is: why have these two things not come together (like peanut butter and chocolate)?

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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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