Can Ubuntu succeed? comparing to iOS and Android

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Last week during Ubuntu Developer Summit, head honcho Mark Shuttleworth said something to the effect of “iOS and Android have managed to succeed despite Microsoft’s monopoly,  and we haven’t” (see the keynote here). As a few days passed I thought about it a bit and here’s what resulted.

I think it’s not quite as clear-cut as “they have done it and we haven’t”. Microsoft’s monopoly is on the desktop, and it is there that Ubuntu is going directly against Microsoft and perhaps, yes, failing to capture a percentually significant chunk of the market. And I won’t go into the whole “Linux is better than Windows” debate.

Rather, let me point out a key fact about Android’s and iOS’s success: they both did so in a market where Microsoft wasn’t a dominant player. Before Apple unleashed the iPhone on the world, the smartphone market was very fragmented, with Microsoft a relevant player (Windows Mobile), but nowhere near the dominance it has in the desktop. Nokia (Symbian) and RIM (Blackberry OS) were two big players, but they have both been relegated, one to irrelevance (Nokia – plus the deal with Microsoft), the other (RIM) to a frankly defensive posture where they lack a strategy and are scrambling just to stop the exodus of users.

Now, even while Apple and Google are the two strongest players in the smartphone market, things are pretty much in a state of flux, and no platform can claim the stranglehold that Microsoft has on the desktop. So those companies are forced to innovate and stay on their toes. But the fact is that, even with a product that is clearly superior to previous offerings, any one of these companies would have had a hell of a time dethroning a hugely dominant player from the field.

Ubuntu’s challenge is greater as it’s going head-on on Microsoft’s cash cow, and there’s no real competition for the desktop. The only other mainstream operating system with any success is Mac OS X. Apple is content with whatever niche they’ve carved for themselves, and it’s clear to anyone that the strides they’ve made in the past decade are more due to the halo effect of the iPod and iPhone than because of OS X’s (admittedly great) merits. So yes, they have a superior product, but that still hasn’t propelled them beyond a 10% market share.  While I’m at it, let me comment: it’s easy to forget that the first versions of OSX were kludgy, slow and difficult to use, and had a myriad usability problems. It was the iPod and then the iPhone that propelled Apple from a fringe player into the powerhouse they are today. In the end, Apple realizes that promoting Mac OS X is not worth a big effort, and that the momentum from the iPod and iPhone are enough to keep OS X alive.

So what does Ubuntu need to succeed on the desktop? I have no insight in this topic, but let’s just realize that it’s not as clear-cut as looking at, and imitating, Android’s and Apple’s successes, because as I’ve said, their playing field was a vastly different one. Would a “halo-effect device” help Ubuntu the way the iPhone helped Mac sales? maybe. Maybe all Ubuntu needs is endurance, as even hugely dominant players (Ford, IBM, WordPerfect, Netscape) can be surpassed under the right circumstances.