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Ubuntu - yes, Ubuntu - poised for mobile melee

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Open...and Shut The enterprise world may increasingly be infatuated with Red Hat, but the mobile and desktop worlds are very much in play, with Canonical's Ubuntu gaining ground in areas most Western observers will not have noticed. In short, there's never been a more exciting, disruptive time to own an operating system.

This is most evident in mobile, where decades of Wintel monopolization of the desktop fissured at this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. As James Allworth writes in the Harvard Business Review:

Both Microsoft and Intel have suffered from the same problem that most successful companies face when dealing with disruption. They cannot find a way to profitably invest in low-end offerings. Think about it from Microsoft's point of view: now that Windows 7 has been developed, to sell another copy, they don't have to do a single thing. Because of this, it becomes very hard for any executive to advocate the complete development of a low cost OS that will run on tablets: not only would it cost Microsoft a lot to develop, but it would result in cannibalization of its core product sales. Intel has the exact same issue. Why focus on Atom, or an even lower-end chip, when there is so much more margin to be made by focusing on its multi-core desktop processors?

This would be fine - except for the coming extinction of the PC.

The wheels are just starting to fall off. At CES, for the first time, almost all of Microsoft's OEM partners abandoned Microsoft exclusivity. And Microsoft's next-generation operating system has abandoned Intel exclusively for the first time. There's no reason to believe that either of the two companies are going to be able to turn this around.

Indeed, despite the raw potential in Microsoft's flirtation with ARM, it is precisely Microsoft's success in its server and desktop businesses that will continually numb any sense of urgency to go big on mobile.

Still, Microsoft makes more money than most countries. It has time to figure things out.

But it's not operating in a vacuum. The most obvious threat is Google Android, which continues to steamroll Microsoft and Apple alike. But there are also other Linux variants, including Intel's MeeGo and Samsung's Bada.

And Ubuntu. Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution (disclosure: I recently resigned as chief operating officer at Canonical), has been working in earnest with ARM for some time, most formally through Linaro. And while Canonical has historically been more interested and adept in desktop than mobile, that is definitely starting to change.

Most North American and European observers measure the health of Canonical by whether or not it shows up in distribution channels like Dell's US-based retail channels. For a variety of reasons, public support for Ubuntu machines comes and goes, but it's largely immaterial, anyway.

Why? Because much of Canonical's client operating system business is in developing markets like China. (You know, that little country near Japan?)

Those who worry about whether Canonical is shipping SKU X or Y through a US Dell retail channel are completely missing the point - and millions of units.

Importantly, these same OEMs are the ones building next-generation tablets and other mobile devices. Canonical, through a growing desktop business with these players, has the relationships to nudge them into experimenting beyond Android, and certainly beyond Windows.

And they are.

Canonical has also recently taken bold steps to redefine the client-side Linux user experience with Unity. Not everyone is a fan of Canonical's approach, given it represents "differentiation over collaboration," as Jeff Waugh expressed it, but if it works, well, Unity gives Ubuntu a fighting chance at serious differentiation on desktop machines but also lends itself to mobile interfaces.

It will be an uphill battle that will rely on considerable luck and Canonical chutzpah, but it's only conceivable because of the serious disruption in the computing market today. The PC is clearly threatened by a new breed of mostly mobile device, and as Microsoft casts about for a winning strategy it has let go of its stranglehold on OEMs and Intel.

In the ensuing melee, Android may well continue to dominate. Or Canonical could come to the fore. Anything is possible when so much is in turmoil.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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