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Wednesday, 28 February 2018 11:37

In a two-OS mobile world, there is no room for Linux


After the demise of the Ubuntu Phone, Linux users appear to be placing their hopes for a mobile device on the Librem 5, a smartphone that managed to raise much more than it asked for in a crowd-funding drive. The company behind it, Purism, has said that it hopes to have phones ready next year.

But it seems unlikely that the phone will have any kind of mass appeal. What seems more likely is that it will cater to a fringe market, putting its long-term viability in doubt.

At least, those who are waiting for the Librem 5 are not deceiving themselves by pretending that Android phones are actually Linux phones, as the head of the Linux Foundation Jim Zemlin does.

Only the kernel in Android — a modified Linux kernel — is open source. All the other bits and pieces are locked up under various licences to facilitate Google's slurping up of data to serve its primary function: targeted advertising.

The market is split into two segments, one of which uses Android phones, while the other, richer segment, uses iPhones. Applications have more or less settled the matter; messaging apps like WhatsApp, which have become must-have software, have made it so. No WhatsApp? Then the average punter will not buy your phone.

What is entrenching Android and iOS even more is the fact that many day-to-day tasks are now being accomplished through apps that run on these two mobile operating systems. Checking in for a flight, for example, is done through an airline's own app – which has versions for just these two mobile operating systems. And that's just the first example of many.

While there has been much talk of universal apps, that will run on any system by using a Web interface, the manufacturers themselves will not go down that route as they know full well that controlling standards will ensure them marketshare. It's an old trick, which IBM perfected and Microsoft followed.

If Web apps do exist, then they are poor imitations of the standalone versions, lacking much of the functionality that the mobile apps afford.

For the Linux faithful, there is still the freely developed Ubuntu Touch which is being developed as free operating system. But here again, commonly used mobile apps will not be available; that requires big bucks.

So, in the end, it will only be Linux users who can afford to have two phones — a Linux device for regular use plus an Android/iOS device for those common tasks — who will form the market for Linux smartphones.

Jack Wallen, a Linux user, recently penned a piece about the Librem 5. But even he, a Linux tragic, had to admit that the operating system which will be used, a modified version of the Plasma Mobile O-S developed by the KDE Desktop project, is still raw and has a long way to go before it becomes usable. The question is, just how long will people wait?

My gut feeling is that Ubuntu Phone, with all its imperfections, was the last hope. The Linux bus has now left the station.

The writer has been using Linux on the desktop for the last 18 years and used an Ubuntu Phone until the end of last year. 

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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