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Ubuntu phone: perhaps it was too good to last

The demise of the Ubuntu phone will not affect hundreds of millions, or even a much smaller multiple of that number.

But, nevertheless, it is a pity to see one of the better alternatives to the data-snooping Android and the walled garden approach of Apple bow out.

Overnight on Wednesday, Mark Shuttleworth, the owner of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, faced up to financial reality and said development of Ubuntu phones and tablets would end.

He is also cutting down on staff but then that was bound to happen: Shuttleworth has been paying all the bills since October 2004 and while he was once a billionaire, nobody has bottomless pockets.

Shuttleworth has rubbed up many people in the open source community the wrong way and he has had to eat humble pie by ditching the desktop environment Unity which he wanted to use for Ubuntu, rather than GNOME as he originally did.

There is a lesson that Shuttleworth can learn from Linux creator Linus Torvalds. The latter, a genius in more ways than one, is bothered about details and sticks to doing one thing and doing it bloody well.

Shuttleworth, on the other hand, has tried to do too much and shown that in many ways he has a "mine is bigger than yours" attitude.

He does not sweat the small stuff; no, he is a man in the mould of P.G. Wodehouse's character Stanley Featherstone Ukridge, one who has vision, and the big broad outlook. Given that, he often comes unstuck. This is one more occasion when that has happened.

Poor communication skills have cost Shuttleworth and his company too; spin does not work well in open-source circles and Shuttleworth is the very epitome of spin.

So what happens to the remaining Ubuntu phone users? They are in a similar bucket to Windows Phone users but with one major advantage: Linux is much more secure than Windows.

The only hope is that someone will pick up the code for Ubuntu phone and run with it. One developer, Marius Gripsgård, has ported it to many other models.

He has also made a promise to keep working on Unity. How long that will go on remains to be seen.

Most technologies end up with two alternatives, one owning roughly 85% of the market and the other holding most of the remaining 15%. Given this has happened repeatedly over the years, perhaps it was foolish to expect the Ubuntu phone experiment to last.

The writer has been using an Ubuntu phone since April 2016.


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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.