Strong sales of the iPhone 4S are putting renewed pressure on Android to innovate. Ubuntu for Android could give the platform a key capability iPhone is still missing.
Last year was a long time ago for Android.
That was when Google’s mobile platform was stealing market share from all the other smartphone platforms — winning even against the iPhone — and beating a path toward market dominance.
But Android is now facing a renewed challenge from its archrival. Android’s vulnerability against the iPhone can be summed up by looking at the two biggest wireless carriers in the U.S. — AT&T and Verizon. At AT&T, the iPhone represented 78% of all smartphone sales in the first three months of 2012. At Verizon, which had been an Android stronghold since the launch of the original Motorola Droid in October 2009, the iPhone has picked up over 50 percent of all smartphone sales for each of the past two quarters (Q4 2011 and Q1 2012).
How’d that happen? Android won over more users than Apple during 2010 and 2011 because Android devices were available on more carriers and there were Android phones that cost a lot less than the $200 base model of the iPhone. But now the iPhone has spread to virtually all of the major carriers and there are now iPhone models available for under $100.
Android badly needs a new advantage against the iPhone in the next stage of the mobile platform fight. It may get it from Canonical‘s Ubuntu for Android.
The Ubuntu factor
Ubuntu is a friendly version of Linux aimed at the masses. Unfortunately, the masses have never embraced it on a large scale, but it has proven to be usable enough that even your technophobic uncle can easily use Ubuntu to do things like surf the Web, check e-mail, and download photos from a digital camera.
While the iPhone is winning on simplicity, Android is winning on expanded features (and it’s still expected to have a 50 percent market share this year). One of those expanded features that the iPhone doesn’t have is the ability to dock and act like a computer.However, Ubuntu has an alternative vision for smartphone/PC convergence and it’s teaming with Android hardware makers on devices that will hit the market later in 2012.
Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has slowly and quietly evolved the Linux desktop into a legitimate low-cost alternative to Windows and Mac. Ubuntu’s focus on usability with its Unity Desktop and Heads-Up Display (which is like a Google search for all of the menus on your computer) has given Ubuntu the simplicity it needs to compete in an era that’s about to be dominated by touchscreens and cloud computing.
That’s why when Canonical announced and demonstrated Ubuntu for Android at Mobile World Congress in February, it generated a lot of interest across the mobile industry. Android phone makers liked the idea of using the software to build high-powered multi-purpose devices and make more money off smartphones accessories like desktop docks. And, wireless carriers loved the idea of powerful smartphones running desktop-level applications that will demand more data than ever
“The feedback has been great,” Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth said. “People that really got their hands on it have raved about it.”
After the announcement, the Canonical booth at MWC 2012 was flooded with interest from corporate tech managers, consumers, and representatives from telcos and handset makers. All of them wanted to see what Ubuntu for Android could do.. Ubuntu takes the concept a step further by opening it up to more apps and to all Android phone makers.
When Ubuntu is loaded on an Android phone, the two platforms share the same Linux kernel, so it’s not like running two operating systems. The two pieces act like complementary partners. The Android phone functions normally when used as a smartphone or when making calls, but when it docks then the Ubuntu desktop pops up and acts like a standard computer. You can open a desktop Web browser, but you can also install and run standard Ubuntu desktop software for photo editing, word processing, etc.
Because Ubuntu is so lean, the entire Ubuntu software stack only takes up about 2GB, and that includes apps for e-mail, Web browsing, photo editing, music, and other basic stuff. If you install more applications from the large Ubuntu repository of open source apps then that will obviously take up more space, but there’s still plenty of storage on most modern smartphones to handle it. While Ubuntu takes up more storage than Webtop, it’s also giving you a lot more capabilities.
“The Ubuntu solution is providing a complete PC operating system,” said Richard Collins, the Product Manager for Ubuntu for Android. “Canonical has always seen the opportunity for Ubuntu for Android. It’s something that’s always been discussed, but once the hardware was ready then we realized the timing was good for this. [The software] is mature enough for us to engage with an OEM today.”
But, while the Ubuntu solution doesn’t alter Android, it provides deep integration with Android on the Ubuntu side, and that’s where Canonical is bringing value that goes above and beyond what Motorola accomplished with Webtop.