AH Tech Talk: Ubuntu is a Prime Target for Carrier Lock Downs and Has a Difficult Road Ahead

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth may have inadvertently revealed how difficult it's going to be for his company's platform to break into the mobile industry. Earlier reports by The Wall Street Journal incorrectly estimated the release date for Ubuntu smartphones for October of this year. Shuttleworth clarified that the estimate was only partially true.

A developer preview will be released within the next day or so, that works exclusively on the Galaxy Nexus and Google Nexus 4 devices. Furthermore, the smartphone friendly version of Ubuntu, 13.10, will be released in October, but devices running the platform out-of-the-box (OTB) won't ship to consumers until early in 2014. In hindsight, this is to be expected, if only because of how long it takes for the carrier testing process to run its course. It would appear that Canonical, Shuttleworth's company is working directly with OEMs to secure a device for the Ubuntu platform.

Shuttleworth discussed the Ubuntu platform, and its future, during a conference call about Ubuntu's new touchscreen tablet platform, which is similar to the mobile one revealed earlier this year.

When asked if Canonical could make a profit with the new Ubuntu mobile operating system, Shuttleworth said the launch is more about brand awareness.

"It solves a lot of problems for us if people go into a store and see Ubuntu branding."

Essentially, Canonical is looking to see more consumers interested in the Ubuntu Linux platform, and having a product on retail shelves is going to ensure that.

If you consider the current state of Android, it seems like a prime example of how the new Ubuntu platform will be handled by carriers in the future.

One of the most innovative ideas behind the Ubuntu platform is that it will provide one core experience across multiple devices. For example, Shuttleworth spoke of specific software updates that would allow you to manage a tablet and smartphone device simultaneously. With the Ubuntu 14.04 update, affected smartphones will make use of the new tablet UI. This will allow consumers to dock a smartphone with a tablet, and experience cross functionality between the two devices within the same app.

While it's certainly an intriguing concept, this is just the kind of thing carriers prevent access to, or even charge extra for. Pay X amount of money to us, and you can unlock the full potential of your device. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common approach in the mobile industry today. It means that Ubuntu will likely be a primary target for carrier lock downs.

Then, of course, there's always the issue of fragmentation.

Shuttleworth also elaborated on the idea of fragmentation, and revealed that the company may not have much control when it comes to the platform.

"It's open source, so it's possible for people to do grevious bodily harm to it."

There are two types of fragmentation in the Android market; there's the more widely known hardware fragmentation, and then there's also software fragmentation.

Software fragmentation isn't such a vast issue, but it can certainly cause confusion for some consumers. It exists because there are so many different Android versions, and the market is littered with devices across all existing Android kernels. For example, there are still budget tablets, and phones releasing with Gingerbread installed.

Hardware fragmentation is a much bigger issue and is more noticeable with various mobile trends such as gaming. Because each phone is equipped with a unique set of hardware, developers must code different versions of the same app to work across a varied range of hardware. This can eventually lead to performance issues, and various devices remaining unsupported.

Of course, the fragmentation issue is a little more complicated and involved than that, but I don't want to drone on for days on the subject. The point here is that the Ubuntu mobile platform could see the same issues in the future, especially if mobile carriers have their say. Android is even more fragmented thanks to carrier skinning and individual software revisions. Even though, the same version of Android is running on the latest Samsung and HTC phones, both versions appear, and function differently thanks to carrier skinning.

Thanks to that last statement, I believe Shuttleworth essentially confirmed that such a thing could happen with Ubuntu in the future. He seems to think, however, that fragmentation is not an issue.

"We've had fairly substantial conversations... none [the carriers or OEMs] have expressed a desire to recreate the fragmentation of the Android operating system...  I think my genuine impression is that people realize that fragmentation doesn't really help them."

Realistically, what can Canonical do to prevent such a thing from happening? Shuttleworth says that there are measures in place that will prevent it.

"There are possibly licensing mechanisms that would prevent that. Certainly none of the company's we've engaged with have expressed the desire to do all of the work that's involved in a device like this and not engage with us... for the moment, at least, we think that gives us reasonable leverage in conversations."

He seems to believe that it's just too much work for carriers to modify and shape the Linux based software on their own. I question if that's an accurate assumption, especially considering carriers are already well versed in Android, would it be such a stretch for them to do the same thing with Ubuntu?

Regardless of the underlying issues with the platform and all the uncertainty that the future holds, Shuttleworth seems confident that his company knows what it is doing.

"We're relatively confident how it will play out in the opening sequences of the chess game."

I have a feeling that no matter how confident Shuttleworth is, this 'chess game' will play out just like we've seen in the past. One thing is blindingly obvious though, Canonical has a long road ahead, especially since the mobile industry changes so rapidly.

What do you think about the Ubuntu platform? Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter of potential fragmentation too. Do you think it's possible, or is it something that's unlikely to happen?

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About the Author

Briley Kenney

Associate Editor
Briley is a modern tech/gaming journalist, and electronic gadget enthusiast. All you need to know is that he's a self-proclaimed wordsmith climbing his way to the top. Briley writes for several online publications including Android Headlines, Dottech, The Tech Labs and more. Recently he served as a content writer for the game Tales of Illyria, and he also designed the web portal for the game.
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