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Canonical should sell hardware to ship Ubuntu for Android

September 1, 2012 15 comments

Ubuntu for Android (UfA) is a special form of the popular Ubuntu operating system which runs on top of Android so the user can run Anrdoid apps and desktop Linux applications at the same time. It blends desktop Linux with Android in the perfect manner so both touch-oriented and mouse-and-keyboard applications can be used perfectly and in their natural environment.

I strongly believe Ubuntu for Android is a game changer and that Ubuntu and Android badly need each other. See my earlier blog entry about this.

The problem

UfA is still nowhere to be seen, even though it was introduced in February, 2012. Canonical (the developer of Ubuntu) wants to distribute UfA exclusively through phone-OEM partnerships. This is understandable but doesn’t seem to be working out since we haven’t heard of any product announcements by now. Considering the usual product development timeframes, this means that we will not see any UfA capable product this year. In general, the rate of product announcements may mean that OEMs don’t buy into the idea of “Android extended by desktop Linux”.

The situation is aggravated by the possible onslaught of WindowsRT devices. If Surface and other WindowsRT devices manage to firmly establish themselves on the market, it will be a much harder fight for Android. Currently, Android is on the top in mobile, so Microsoft needs to fight the uphill battle with WindowsRT. A well timed, well marketed, spectacular innovation like Ubuntu for Android could give Android the fuel to fight WindowsRT. Seeing the recent announcements of WindowsRT devices, it very much looks like that brand-name OEMs have committed themselves to ship both Windows8 and RT devices in number, which hardly means any good for Android or Ubuntu.

Improving on the situation

The biggest problem is that UfA is practically invisible for the average Android user. UfA needs to get into the hands of users in order to generate a widespread need for it (which in turn can make it a requirement for OEMs).

Several Canonical employees have publicly stated that the company will eventually release this integration work as GPL’d open-source projects. Even if they wanted a business advantage by keeping it closed for a while, that advantage is worthless if the business environment becomes much worse due to the delays (OEMs committing to WindowsRT). UfA should be open-sourced immediately in order to form a basis for its distribution.

Partnering with CyanogenMod

CyanogenMod has always been about features. If UfA needs to be distributed by custom-ROMs (until OEMs catch up) the best place for this would be with CyanogenMod. CYM already supports a wide set of phones and tablets and a lot of people venture to use their ROM on a device which doesn’t get proper OEM updates. For example, my HP Touchpad now runs CyanogenMod 10 and I am impressed with the quality of this distribution. Due to the inability of HP, the Touchpad was a very limited device running WebOS (e.g. no hw accelerated video playback unless via a paid app, fairly slow browser…etc). Now, it happily serves the family both as a nimble browsing device and as a video player (YouTube and videos from the home NAS). The power of the Linux community helped to make the TouchPad a worthwhile purchase.

Canonical could easily set up a project which integrates Ubuntu for Android into CyanogenMod for a lot of devices. In order to avoid bloat, the UfA capable device ROMs could ship with an installer application which download and install the necessary extra components and Ubuntu for Android itself. This way, the base Cyanogen ROM could remain small but any user could transform its device into a full Ubuntu desktop when the need arises.

Selling Canonical branded devices with Ubuntu for Android

Since Canonical has practically no OEM partners, it cannot effectively alienate them (as opposed to Microsoft with the Surface) by selling branded hardware. Seeing the headway with OEMs, nobody could blame Canonical if it turned to hardware sales as a means to more effectively distribute Ubuntu to end-users. Canonical doesn’t have to make money on the hardware, the goal is to put out as many running Ubuntu instances as possible which may generate support contracts.

Naturally, I wouldn’t recommend actually building hardware, only customizing already-available, generic products from ODMs.

How about a Android/Ubuntu stick-PC?

Although Canonical seems to be focusing on phones with UfA, the emerging stick-PC category is also very interesting for a set of reasons. First of all, they cost almost nothing, so the volume may be very high (just what Canonical needs). Secondly, these sticks mostly come with only Android support, but fairly common hardware (like Mali400 GPU, Cortex-A9 cores…etc) so customizing their Android distribution with Ubuntu for Android should not be a significant undertaking.  Thirdly, they come with fairly strong memory bandwidth so Ubuntu will work much better than on limited phone hardware. I was fairly surprised how fast an Allwinner-A10 based laptop can run Ubuntu so you can imagine the speed we get with a new, RK3066 based stick. Hardware-wise, all Canonical needs to do is having an RK3066 stick customized with the ODM for the targeted use case (2GB of RAM and 8GB of flash should be the baseline).

With sufficient volume, a $100 Ubuntu stick looks doable. That device would run all of the typical Android apps/games (like Angry Birds, ShadowGun…etc), serve as a media-center with XBMC for Android and turn into a full-blown Ubuntu desktop if the user wants to do some serious work (or just needs the known-and-trusted Linux desktop). Such a stick could be used as a “TV smartener” with an RF keyboard/touchpad (including a decent torrent client like Transmission) or a normal desktop PC when combined with a monitor + keyboard and mouse.

Whatever Canonical chooses to do, it needs to be done quickly, since the current, favourable market conditions (e.g. the relative weak position of Microsoft in the mobile segment) may not remain with us indefinitely.

 

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