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There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

Wise words those, from the bard of Avon. They come to mind as one ponders the situation that Canonical is in, after its announcement a few days ago of a concept for a mobile running Ubuntu.

Briefly put, the company has missed the boat. The announcement is too little. And it is far too late. Any announcement of vapourware in the mobile space at this time is a waste of time and space.

The time for an announcement was when Ubuntu came out with the its new GUI. There should have been desktop and mobile initiatives going on side by side, because the whole thrust of that interface was towards a mobile and tablet future. That never happened.

There are some things which appear to have escaped Canonical chief Mark Shuttleworth. For instance, why hasn't Apple, the leader in the mobile smartphone space for a long time, ever tried to put iOS on its desktop products? One can't argue that iOS is not a mature product. The iPhone first came on the market nearly six years ago.

The reason is that Apple probably understands that desktop computing is a whole world away from mobile or tablet computing. The same interface that works on a vertical plane will not work on a horizontal one. Given the simplicity of the mobile interface, the level of learning involved in using it is minimal, certainly not even half as much as the desktop interface. Thus people do not mind having two different UIs for the two interfaces.

Canonical, apparently, does not understand this. Neither does Microsoft, but it has a much bigger pile of cash to plough through compared to Shuttleworth.

Another aspect of retaining and growing an userbase that Apple understands is the concept of stability zones - sameness that remains from generation to generation of products, ensuring that the user feels familiar with the interface. A sudden change alienates people and this Apple understands; Canonical, again, does not. Ubuntu gave its userbase the finger not so long ago, switching interfaces in a move that was not exactly popular.

In the desktop space, Ubuntu has been more successful than other GNU/Linux distributions because it has filled a niche between Windows and the Mac. But in the mobile space, there is already a Linux-based product, and one that is highly successful.

If there were any doubts about Android, they were laid to rest with the arrival of the Samsung Galaxy SIII, a mobile that sent a certain degree of panic rustling through Apple's ranks. If you sell 40 million units of a product, you have to be doing something right.

For those who want to fiddle with a more open platform, there is Cyanogenmod. There is no lacuna to fill; the Ubuntu mobile when it arrives, perhaps next year, will be an actor looking for a role that does not exist.

Bringing a tablet to market is a very difficult endeavour. The KDE project's Aaron Seigo made an ambitious announcement last year and even promised pre-orders soon, but is still to come out with the product. Last year, the people at ZaReason came out with an Android tablet they claimed to be the most open of the lot, but it is a turkey.

Canonical will not be able to come out with a branded tablet any time soon. And there are not many among the increasing number of Nexus users who will flash their devices with an Ubuntu image. The Nexus is a gadget that works remarkably well for its limited tasks. Why would the average human being try to fix something that isn't broken?

Canonical has also failed to understand that people are not really bothered about the underlying technology any more, as long as a device works and does what it is supposed to do. The days of ideology are disappearing, the days when you see formerly hardcore GNU/Linux users brandishing iPhones and MacBooks at open source conferences are here.

The confusion that Canonical exhibits can be traced to the big mistake made by Shuttleworth in not clearly enunciating the company's ambitions at the outset. By trying to be all things to all men, he has created a situation where people who would have been on-side are now some of his harshest critics.

Ubuntu mobile will be another of the bit players in the market, if and when it does emerge. GNOME and KDE will join the crowd sometime too, two more bottom-feeders that sit and watch as the sharks above devour the market in big bites. Opportunity knocks but once. It's a hard lesson to learn.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.