How Projections for Linux Smart Phones Mislead

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 15, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

2015 was a year of failures for Linux phones. However, that hardly means, as one much-discussed article asserts, that Linux phones "took a serious step backwards." The failures simply mean that little or no progress was made -- something quite different.

Yes, the failures are undeniable. Sailfish is struggling to survive, and Mozilla announced that it would stop developing and distributing FireFox OS because "we weren’t able to offer the best user experience possible." Even the Ubuntu phone, by far the most ambitious of the year's efforts, has had such lacklustre distribution and sales that the company has felt obliged to issue statements about the advantages of starting small, as though the poor performance was part of a deliberate strategy.

Equally real is the disappointment of the crowd. Many of us have an emotional stake in the success of Linux, and, frankly, we're not used to failure. For the last decade, Linux has gone from success to success, until we take success for granted. A year ago, when the first phones were released, it was easy to see them as the first steps on the paths for greatness.

In fact, though, this perception was no more accurate than most business projections. You know what a projections is -- an unstable combination of hopes, educated guesses, and publicity for potential investors. The trouble is, projections have a way of transforming from rough plans to enshrined certainties. Then, when the company fails to live up to the projection, the result is labeled a loss -- and never mind that the company never actually had the money predicted in the projection.

Much the same thing has happened with Linux phones. The failure of hopes is seen as a disaster when in fact it could be predicted from the start.
Outside the bubble
Living with Linux and free software, you can easily forget you are in a specialty bubble. The phones of 2015 may have carried the hopes of the community, but, outside the bubble, they received only limited attention. They attracted a few articles, but, outside the bubble, they were just three moderately backed phones among dozens of other models. They were easy to overlook.

If anything, you could say that the odds were stacked against them. In 2015, the phone market is heavily saturated. Even in developing countries, few phone sales are to customers buying a phone for the first time. Instead, the sales are replacements, and in such a market, innovations or excellence count for very little -- what people want is a new phone much like their old ones, perhaps with a few minor enhancements. Free software often enshrines the myths of meritocracy, but in a saturated market, excellence counts for little.

Nor does it help that Linux phones are newcomers. Coming as late to the market as Mozilla, Sailfish, or Ubuntu did, even the iPhone would be lucky to duplicate its current success. It would have to overcome too many well-entrenched brands.

Yet, even so, a radical new phone from Apple would still probably outsell any of the Linux phones of 2015, simply because Apple has what none of the Linux phones had: a name, and a sales record. Mozilla, Sailfish and Ubuntu were all new manufacturers. They not only had to struggle to find hardware manufacturers who would squeeze their relatively small orders in between the orders from larger companies, but also distributors willing to take a chance and properly market newcomers. The fact that they actually managed to release products is more of an accomplishment than most observers in the Linux community realize.

The challenge that all three Linux phones faced is that saturated markets are conservative markets. Distributors might include a few innovative products on the off-chance that they might become popular, but they are unlikely to give the kind of promotion needed to succeed.

Perspective problems
In the end, what seems like major news in the Linux community is simply business as usual in the smart phone market. As free software advocates agonize over the implications of the failures of Linux phones, I am reminded of how Canadians obsess when a Canadian movie or musician fails to hit the big time in the United States. Just as Canadians struggle with the concept that their prize offerings are one among dozens in the United States, so free software advocates struggle with the idea that Linux phones are lost in a crowded market.

The truth is that, among smart phones Linux is no more a brand than being Canadian is one in film or music. It is not Linux phones that fail, but that most new phones do. When twenty new Linux phones fail simultaneously on the market is time enough to worry. But three? That's hardly even a beginning. It's only inside the Linux community that the three are even associated with each other.

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