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Ubuntu Touch is still a thing, but Linux phones will never take off

By Sam Medley , last updated on November 7, 2019

Linux may run most of the world’s data centers and web servers, and its popularity for individual PCs is growing (even our own Douglas Black is giving it a whirl), but the open-source OS has never been able to successfully break into the smartphone world.

One of the most ambitious attempts at a Linux phone came from Canonical, the developers of Ubuntu. Ubuntu Touch, as the smartphone distro was to be called, was abandoned several years ago, but a small team called UBports picked up the project. Apparently, Ubuntu Touch still exists, and now it supports 64-bit applications.

This is a big deal for Ubuntu Touch. Transitioning to a 64-bit platform allows the OS to use more than 4 GB of RAM, apps open a bit quicker, and the overall experience is more fluid on modern smartphones that support Ubuntu Touch.

Speaking of supported devices, the list of phones that can run Ubuntu Touch is small. Out of those options, only a handful support the 64-bit flavor. These include the Sony Xperia X, the OnePlus 3, and the OnePlus 3T. To make matters worse, installing the 64-bit version of Ubuntu Touch is a complicated, manual mess of a procedure. UBports has an installer that handles the installation of the 32-bit version of Ubuntu Touch, but the installer doesn’t support the 64-bit version.

That’s probably the key reason why Ubuntu Touch (among other mobile-focused Linux distros) never took off. Smartphones are inherently all about simplicity. From the touch input-centered design to the lack of upgradeable hardware to the simplicity of applications and operating systems, smartphones were never designed to be “tinker boxes,” at least on a large scale. Most people looking for a smartphone want it to be a simple pocket computer they can use to check in with friends, surf the web, and play a game or two. Despite some bold claims, smartphones are not meant for the same workloads as traditional computers. As such, users are much less willing to tinker with the software on a smartphone than they are on a laptop or desktop.

Ubuntu Touch, now with 64-bit support.

Another reason mobile Linux has failed so far is that smartphones are a nightmare to develop for. While most computer hardware is largely standardized and widely available, smartphone hardware is expensive and often includes proprietary pieces not open to the community at large. Add to that the different skills needed to code for touchscreen-only input and the limited power of the hardware and you have a recipe for frustration from developers.

Linux smartphones have always been a passion project rather than serious endeavors. Even Purism (who seems to have the best handle on developing a Linux phone) readily admits that their Librem 5 Linux phone isn’t for everyone; rather, the handset is for Linux enthusiasts and hardware nerds.

The final nail in the coffin for the Linuxphone is the insanely narrow entrance into the market. Apple and Android have so thoroughly dominated the smartphone market for so long that a new entrant will largely be ignored. A Linuxphone finding its way into enough pockets to make the project economically feasible is about as likely as climbing Mount Everest with two plastic straws and a pair of flip flops. It’s just not going to happen.

It’s heartwarming to see projects like Ubuntu Touch continue, and it’s great to see them hit these kinds of milestones. These are passion projects that are to be respected, but every time I see something about Linux smartphones in the news, I have to roll my eyes a little bit. The comments on these stories are usually rife with Linux users and FOSS supporters claiming this is “the year of Linux” for smartphones.

Stop trying to make a Linux phone happen. It’s not going to happen.

Footnote: I fully understand that Android is built on Linux and is technically a “Linux-based phone.” But you and I both know that’s not what is meant by the term “Linuxphone,” so hush.

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Sam Medley is a seasoned news writer and device reviewer with a passion for telling the story behind technology. His key areas of interest are data privacy, Linux, and gaming (with a particular affinity for retro games). When he's not writing, Sam is producing music, tinkering with electronics, or spending time outside with his wife and four children

5 Comments

  1. bittricks

    November 9, 2019 at 7:34 am

    Linux phones won't happen. Just go over to the Librem forums to see what a "sheetshow" it all is… countless delayed deliveries, using old, obsolete, underpowered hardware, grave doubts about the power and networking, no apps, and so on. When the Librem 5 gets released, the IT media is going to slam it.

    Actually, I'm all for a Linux phone… but one that has the basic apps that just about everyone demands such as maps\directions, mail client, camera, text messaging, etc. The Librem 5 cannot even deliver the basics at this point.

    There is a ton of fainboism and tribalism swirling about the Librem 5 project. There's a core of people that are willing to throw their hard-earned money at Librem 5 to support the FOSS\privacy phone.

    IF Librem manages to survive another 5 years, only then will I consider any of their devices.

    • Sam Medley

      November 11, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      To their credit, Purism (the team behind the Librem 5) have been around for a while and make pretty decent, if expensive, laptops.
      But yes, I agree that the Librem 5 has been a duct-taped disaster. Purism has gotten closer than anyone to delivering a legitimate Linuxphone, and it is pretty bad. Software updates can only go so far.
      Here's the rub: Linux is a desktop OS and is built to be a desktop OS. Mobile OSes have different focus, and the FOSS community isn't too interested in developing Linux for mobile. Once the community decides to focus on mobile, then Linuxphones will see progress. However, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

  2. DOT2010

    November 11, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    Android = Linux
    So much bullshit rarely read only in the title, the author has no plan. That saves you the article better.

    • Sam Medley

      November 11, 2019 at 9:08 pm

      I pointed out at the end of the article that I fully understand and recognize that Android devices are technically Linux phones, but that's not what the term "Linuxphone" usually refers to.
      Also, I'm not sure what you meant by "the author has no plan." I didn't deign to posit any kind of plan or roadmap for Linux phones. I'm merely sharing my observations.

  3. Guy Fawkes

    November 20, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    I think Ubuntu should start supporting Wayland instead. The majority of users will use spy apps like FB and Twitter just like this Site. What is the point of this crap? Smart phones are for supervising the users when they buy a subway ticket etc in the smart cities in the future. Refuse a smart phone is resistance to f……. Supervising Dictatorship where Microdollar,FB and others are the new kings. Buy a dumb phone for 20 dollars and be happy. Boycott the supervisors. Use free source OS that think privacy is important. Suckers likes Suckerberg so go on licking d….

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