Will the Ubuntu Phone Rock the African Software Development Market?

Will the Ubuntu Phone Rock the African Software Development Market?
You’re undoubtedly familiar with Ubuntu. An open source OS powerhouse, some argue that Ubuntu has the potential to take a sizable bite out of the cost of deploying tech that would otherwise require license fees. Others see a fledgling product not yet ready for prime time. But with Ubuntu’s new open source phone-that’s-also-a-computer, we may actually be seeing a glimpse of the future.
Or are we? Open source operating systems are nothing new; neither is deploying an open source mobile OS. Looking past Android’s 52% market share we can see a history of well-meaning attempts. WebOS, Openmoko and a host of Nokia projects all spent their time in the ring.
But something about Ubuntu looks different. Reading their material and watching Richard Collins, Ubuntu Mobile product manager at Canonical talk about what the phone will do, you can’t help but think that there’s something bigger here. Mobile phones these days are computers. Apple’s iPhone 5 has the same amount of processing power – and not just specs, but real benchmark performance – as the first generation Macbook Air. Ubuntu’s promise to make their OS available through a phone could be the melding of the two worlds that tablets have yet to be – the one device with the portability and power-consumption properties of a phone and the productivity of a desktop. Maybe.
So what does this mean for the development crowd?
From a cost perspective, this may or may not be a big deal. Netbooks may have had their day so a $150 computer is incredibly attractive. But dual-core phones are still expensive, and that initial price tag doesn’t include a keyboard, mouse and monitor. The cost of tablets is coming down and the Internet doesn’t care if you’re running Ubuntu so long as you have a browser, so the added value may not justify the price.
Then again, this kind of full-blown open source OS on a mobile platform might just be the thing that African developers are looking for. Mobile penetration is huge. Smartphone penetration is swinging up and may actually outpace mobile. Having the ability to write not only apps but full-blown applications may be where African software developers finally get traction. Ubuntu is shooting for 200 million users by 2015, and with the announcements that they’re building the national operating system for China and that they’re expecting most of their growth to be in the developing world, there may be a lot of traction to be had.
“I think carriers are looking to try us out in emerging markets,” said Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical Ltd, the for-profit company behind Ubuntu. “We ship on 30 percent of Chinese PCs today. If you go into a store in India, you will see Ubuntu branding. It’s a very easy transition for us there.”
An easy transition? We’ll have to wait until the phones start shipping in October 2013 to know for sure.