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Ubuntu On A Phone Or Firefox OS: Which Scares iPhone And Android Most?

max smolaks
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We want a good, clean fight. No lawsuits, patent trolls, or being inspired by Apple products. Let’s get it on!

Last week, Canonical finally showed the world how Ubuntu looks when running on a smartphone. And it looks good. The mobile version of the popular OS is fast, pleasant to the eye and features original design solutions not found anywhere else.

But while the presentation was littered with references to Google’s  Android and Apple’s iOS, it failed to mention another potential rival – Firefox OS. The two share more than a few similarities: both are open source operating systems based on the Linux kernel, developed by thousands of enthusiasts around the world. Both rely heavily on HTML5, and renounce the Java virtual machine. Finally, both are aimed at developing markets.

Naturally, we have to ask the question: who would win in a fist fight between Ubuntu on a phone and Firefox OS?

Are Ubuntu and Firefox in each other’s way?

Mark Shuttleworth Canonical UbuntuLast Tuesday, Mark “Space Tourist” Shuttleworth explained to the media why Ubuntu is the OS of the future. He mentioned stores in China selling branded Ubuntu gear, quoted sales figures and bragged about the ever-so-stable six month release cycle.

He was wearing a well-fitted suit, and even though his belt buckle had the peace sign on it, it was obvious that Shuttleworth’s hippie days are long over. He’s not here to disrupt; he’s here to make big bucks and take over the world.

Compare him to the crazy bunch at Mozilla: these are the innovators, the people with weird haircuts and original ideas, the left-wing idealists that rely on donations and have a red dinosaur on their logo. These people want to make the Web better, and have chosen a mobile OS as the means to do it.

Both systems are revolutionary, but for different reasons. Canonical is the first company in the world to perform a full brain transplant, and put a desktop OS into a mobile body. Ubuntu on a phone is the same OS, with a few interface tweaks. It supports both HTML5 and the native apps, written in serious programming languages.

By comparison, over at Microsoft, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 run on the same kernel, but are still two very different systems.

Meanwhile, Firefox OS is revolutionary because the whole system is essentially a browser window running HTML5 code. You really can’t go any simpler than this.

…or doing different tasks?

Who will use Ubuntu on a phone? People who already use Ubuntu – the hardcore geeks and the open source enthusiasts, the IT professionals and the Chinese. Who will use Firefox OS? Everyone else, from my grandma to the South American peasants for whom it will be the first Internet-enabled device they have ever owned.

Who will develop apps for Ubuntu? Mostly, people who are already doing it. Who will develop apps for Firefox OS? Anyone who has managed to learn basic Web page creation skills.

ZTE and Telefonica are already making their own ‘Firephones’, due to launch later this year. Deutsche Telekom, Sprint, Smart Telecom Italia, Telenor and Etisalat have also expressed interest in Mozilla’s OS. In contrast, Canonical hasn’t convinced a single smartphone manufacturer to try out Ubuntu, and is forced to run demos on Google’s handsets.

This means that in a way, Mozilla is already winning. But the two operating systems are not direct competitors. They both vie for the same entry-level smartphone bracket, but in a different way.

Canonical has one ace in the hole – the desktop feature. A powerful phone with Ubuntu installed can serve as a regular PC, once connected to a monitor and a keyboard.

At a time when most of your applications are hosted in the cloud, the ability to have your phone run a thin client on a large screen could convince many to try this Linux distribution. Add the fact that a fleet of Ubuntu phones can be managed through the same tools as Ubuntu servers, and you can see how it could appeal to the enterprise users.

So, if Canonical doesn’t get people interested in Ubuntu phones as… phones, it can always market them as desktop replacements. And the convergent platform will become a lot more attractive once Ubuntu for tablets is released.

Meanwhile, Samsung and Intel are already working on an alternative Linux-based mobile OS, in case the Android deal goes sideways. It’s called Tizen. This exotic beast incorporates the remains of MeeGo and Bada, and will be perfectly compatible with Firefox OS.

There is currently no information on its relationship with the Ubuntu environment, but it might make sense for Canonical to use HTML 5 to grow its ecosystem, by any means necessary, perhaps involving  some sort of shared app store with Tizen or Firefox OS.

Canonical is making big claims that Ubuntu will end what it calls the ‘duopoly’ of Android and iOS. In fact, the days of that duopoly may well be numbered – since it is being attacked on several fronts at the same time (don’t even get me started on Aliyun).

Which "alternative" phone operating system would you most like to try?

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  1. I already use ubuntu on my computer and I love it. It would be great to be able to use the same apps I use on my computer when I dont feel like lugging it around.

    1. Hmm, quite a few things were biased in this evaluation. I agree that FirefoxOS definately has its foot in the door already, but saying that it is easier to develop for is absurd. Both Ubuntu Phone and FirefoxOS sport HTML5, the difference is that Ubuntu Phone lets you get more bang for your buck by a much more powerful language, one that isnt interpretted or just a markup. Albeit Firefox is definately pioneering in the javascript engine development. So I think comparing them on these fronts should be along the lines of which provides better HTML5 support or performance. Until then Ubuntu Phone gets a +1 for being able to support something alot more powerful.

      Another thing is that it is obvious Canonical believe in merging the open source ecosystem that makes up most Linux Distribution with proprietory apps / drivers to ensure that anyone venturing into Linux can have the apps they want therefor benefiting Canonical as a company and the user. So although they might be in it for a bit of selfish reasons they are infact pressing a different form of “free as in speech”, one that allows you to choose the best of both worlds. A system you can change as you see fit with the benefits of the widely accepted apps in the industry. Does this mean open source will die? By contrast, it will enforce open source to compete head on. I have faith in open source, except when it inhibits my ability to choose what I want in a system, in as simple terms as possible.

      I don’t think Canonical is the savior or whatnot, I just think that your representation of the company was steamed in bias. I may be wrong, or I may be right, doesn’t change the fact that both FirefoxOS and Ubuntu Phone should be weighted against each other in an unbiased setting.

  2. One fundamental flaw of FFox OS, is the lack of “C” support, which will disallow porting of Open-Source software to this platform. No such problem exists with Android or Ubuntu phone.

  3. Glad to see ubuntu and FFox fragmenting its own market. HTML5 apps are junk. This should tie up a few people making useless apps for a crappy phone OS.

  4. I think I’ll end up preferring Firefox OS in the long run. Although Ubuntu for Phones is a great concept, the amount of disdain I have for the Unity interface is a major turnoff. Perhaps if a Kubuntu-based option were available I would consider it, but otherwise, Firefox OS looks to offer a much cleaner interface and environment with the same Linux underpinnings I enjoy in my devices.

    For reference, I currently own a Samsung Galaxy SII (Sprint’s version, a.k.a. “Epic 4G Touch”) running CyanogenMod 10 (Android 4.1). I’ll probably be doing what I can to port Firefox OS to the device (or, if even remotely possible, a non-Unity Ubuntu) during the next several months.

  5. Sailfish being #1 right now in the poll makes me think someone has asked people to go and vote on this… 😉

    But back to the question, to me it’s about choosing the openess of a full linux platform vs the openess of the web platform.

    I know html5 can run on ubuntu, but as someone said, will it be as completely integrated / well supported?

    I like the idea of apps that can run anywhere and do away with the OS so we can all go through a standard global open platform (with Linux as a kernel!).

    So I don’t know, I guess I’ll have to see the hardware if they compare and some really world reviews!

    1. Alex – I agree there is obviously some cheerleading going on out there, but the logs all look genuine, and this is one of our most popular polls yet.

      I’ll take this as an indication that mobile Linux people are very vocal and organised.

      And I’m enjoying the discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the difference platforms.


  6. The fact that you can use every applications you’re using now on your laptop/PC, also on your phone, is awesome.
    I think in the far future Ubuntu is the winner; because as Shuttleworth DID mention HTML5 is limited.

    After all, that edge features is brilliant.

  7. I really enjoyed watching Ubuntu phone in action. Whatever we see in the screen we can use it. Simply stunning. Full capabilities of pc is way more advanced. Really looking forward to Ubuntu phone :-)