In 2013, billionaire space-tourist and Linux advocate Mark Shuttleworth announced Ubuntu Phone. It was based, rather obviously, on the Linux distribution, Ubuntu. Ubuntu had already seen a lot of success in the server and desktop world, and could arguably be the most important distribution since the creation of the open-source operating system in the early 90s. It really made Linux a usable and stable OS that “normals” could use.
A lot of mobile OS’s use Linux as their Kernel, most famously Android. But back in 2012/13 the market was still relatively open compared to the iOS and Android duopoly we have now. In those days, Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) decided to make a foray into the mobile space themselves. After all Android was based on Linux, and a truly open-source mobile OS was a dream of many in the free software world.
Shuttleworth, however wanted to go further. He wanted “convergence”. This when you have the same OS running on your phone and computer. Just plug your phone into a monitor and voila, full desktop! He was clearly ahead of the curve. Last year Microsoft unveiled Continuum which did the same with Windows 10. Recently we have seen Samsung do the same with the recently unveiled Dex.
It seems thought that dream had come crashing down. After 4 years of trying, a number of questionable phones, and alienation of significant members of the Linux community, Shuttleworth, in an extraordinary blog post, has announced the end of the Ubuntu Phone and convergence project. He even goes further to say that the whole desktop environment used on Ubuntu (Unity), which was the basis of the mobile interface, has also been canned. This means that almost a decade of development in the controversial Unity is being abandoned and the cross-platform GNOME desktop is going to be used in the new releases of Ubuntu.
In a way, it makes sound business sense, the project has been been a massive loss-maker, and they are not really much further forward then they were years ago. (I even mentioned on a Linux podcast that it was dead…in 2014!) On the other hand, because so much had been invested in it (in money, time and aggravation!) it’s so surprising. Fundamentally it shows how entrenched the iOS and Android duopoly has become. Microsoft have failed with Windows Mobile. Blackberry has moved to Android. Firefox OS has been canned. Tizen is struggling and a Sailfish phone still hasn’t appeared. Now with Ubuntu phone gone too, whats left?
It also makes you wonder, whether this convergence model, though it sounds really cool, is actually a white elephant? Many have remarked that why would you use your phone as your computer, when you already have a laptop.
You have to aim high, sometimes you win, sometimes you fail. Shuttleworth aimed high, and he failed. Kudos to the man to understand that. He wants Ubuntu to succeed, and if that means changing focus, he will do that.
Ubuntu Phone, we hardly knew you, but your spectacular disaster, we will miss.