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Game-changer! Android apps on Ubuntu

Android apps on Ubuntu
Android apps on Ubuntu

Word out of Ars Technica is Canonical, the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, is developing a method to run mobile-type Android apps on desktop-type Ubuntu, as well as other flavors of Linux. Sounds great for anyone with an Android phone and Linux PC, which is a pretty narrow sliver of the population, but I think the implications will be much more profound, potentially reshaping the computer industry. Sound unlikely? Allow me to explain.

Until recently, the notion of running the apps from your mobile device on your PC seemed unnecessary. Mobile apps typically had PC equivalents that were more powerful and easier to use. Why run Windows Mobile mail on your desktop, when any number of client or web-based apps offered superior functionality?

For the most part that’s still true, but mobile apps have grown both more powerful and easier to use over the years. That combination makes them highly appealing to the consumer market that smartphones have begun to reach in the past few years. If you like the simple, powerful email system on your BlackBerry Storm, then why wouldn’t you want the same system on your PC? Thus, a potentially huge audience of users seeking the same experience on both their mobile and PC has begun to form. Canonical seems positioned to seize this opportunity. But they’re not alone.

Apple has a powerful advantage in this realm. Obviously, the breadth and reach of their App Store is their key strength in any mobile app analysis, but also, unlike everyone else, they use the same basic OS for both their phones and computers. We know iPhone apps can run on Mac OS X because there’s an emulator developers use to test apps before loading them on their test devices. It’s safe to assume every iPhone app has already been successfully tested on Mac OS X. What Canonical wants to do with Android apps and Ubuntu, Apple can assuredly already do with iPhone apps and Mac OS X. I can certainly see them going a step further with a dashboard-like system running iPhone apps in separate windows with multi-touch control for zooming, rotation, and shaking. When rumors of an Apple tablet eventually pan out (I’m not holding my breath for this year, but I think it’s inevitable), I would be shocked if Apple did not enable it to run iPhone apps, luring their army of iPhone users to buy them.

Microsoft appears to be in a similar position as Apple, but not quite. Emulating Windows Mobile on a PC is simple enough, but the operating systems have different foundations. Compatibility issues will likely arise as a result. Worse yet, enabling iPhone apps to run on Macs gives iPhone owners strong incentive to buy Macs, driving Apple’s larger customer base to their most profitable product line. Microsoft sees no such benefit from doing the same. Their Windows Mobile base is a fraction of their PC base, and the vast majority, if not all, of Windows Mobile users already use PCs. They gain nothing from following Canonical’s example except to stay competitive.

The other players in the mobile OS market aren’t even in the same playing field. Palm, RIM, and Nokia have no vested interest in PCs. They’d need to also make their mobile apps run on PCs to stay competitive, but they don’t have nearly as much at stake as Apple and Microsoft. On the PC side, Canonical and the various Linux makers stand to benefit from their effort, but neither they nor Android hold enough of the market to have a major impact either way.

No, by itself, Canonical’s plan does not have the mass to shift the game, but it should drive the heavy players to follow their lead and that would indeed be a game-changer. This seemingly small development could have huge repercussions. The other thing to watch, however, is whether Apple will pre-empt their efforts in their OS announcements at WWDC next month.   It will be very interesting to see how things will unfold, but I believe the convergence of mobile apps and PC  operating systems, as being pursued by Canonical,  is inevitable.

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18 Comments

  1. LeeN

    05/26/2009 at 10:05 pm

    I don’t use OSX so I am not sure what you mean by the advantages that it has over Windows and Ubuntu. On windows I know of and have tested emulators for both Android and WinMo.

    http://www.downloadsquad.com/2008/03/02/microsoft-device-emulator-lets-you-run-windows-mobile-6-on-your/

    http://developer.android.com/guide/developing/tools/emulator.html

    AFAIK the only thing missing from these emulators is the fact that you can’t actually buy apps through them. I would think the iphone emulator would have the same issue. Even though there is already piracy of apps, I am sure there is concern that having apps in an emulator would make it easier for people to pirate apps. I’m sure it is similar logic as to why Amazon is willing to create a Kindle iPhone app but not willing to create a kindle ebook reader for PCs.

    Reply

  2. Fleon

    05/27/2009 at 12:13 am

    This isn’t a game changer by any stretch of the imagination for a number of reasons, and your article is wrong in many respects.

    1) I do not believe anyone will chose to use a limited function app on a full PC when there is an alternative that will do much more. Mobile apps are designed for a different ergonomic system- they just aren’t the same.

    2) You are wrong in that the iPhone and the Mac use the same OS. There are substantial differences, and you can not expect something compiled for the iPhone to run with a simple recompile on the Mac.

    3) It really wouldn’t make much sense for Apple/Microsoft to potentially cannibalize applications for one platform when they can profit from both. iPhone apps are inexpensive enough that they are impulse purchases- there’s no need to create greater incentive to purchase them by expanding their platform availability.

    4) Have you ever met anyone who would rather use the Blackberry mail app over Outlook/Gmail/Eudora/telnet?

    Reply

  3. Modnar

    05/27/2009 at 1:50 am

    The idea is sort of there but the platforms way of input is totally different so this will be somewhat limited. Also they would be closer to widgets rather than apps for desktops as try doing slides on a touchpad.

    Also MS is sort already working on this based on that they are getting around to releasing silverlight on WinMo and also on nokia’s phones.

    Palm’s angle on this is going to be their web browser.

    Also there have been emulators for running palm, WinMo and Symbian apps on desktops for ages (mostly windows though).

    Reply

  4. HereAndNow

    05/27/2009 at 5:01 am

    Android, Moblin & Ubuntu each have something unique to offer on netbooks. Hopefully, the teams behind these projects can find a way to blend their strengths, to create a really killer netbook experience.

    Reply

  5. Sumocat

    05/27/2009 at 5:04 am

    LeeN: I did not mention anything about OS X having benefits over the other operating systems. The advantage was strictly a matter of it being easier to run iPhone apps on Macs because the share the same foundation.

    Fleon: 1 & 4, I personally find many tasks preferable on my iPhone due to the layout and simplicity, and I mentioned a “dashboard-like” interface so as to indicate they could work like widgets, which people do enjoy for their simplicity. 2, the iPhone SDK emulator proves otherwise. 3, the potential for profit isn’t about selling apps but about selling Macs. I think the ability to run one’s favorite mobile apps on their dashboard would lure some iPhone owners to buy Macs. It has nothing to do with selling more apps.

    Modnar: we agree on everything, but let me specify that not every mobile app requires all the forms of mobile input. Many would operate fine as widgets on a dashboard without significant alteration. Also, I think more forms of touch input will be coming to PCs thanks to Windows 7, so the chasm between input methods will shrink, and to Macs when their tablet finally materializes.

    Reply

  6. Fleon

    05/27/2009 at 9:38 am

    Just a quick response to your #2- there are emulators for all kinds of things for all kinds of platforms, but it doesn’t follow at all that the foundations for the two devices are the same. The most popular example is probably the multi-platform Super Nintendo emulator; in no way does its existence mean the host platform and emulated device are based on the same platform or foundation.

    Have you written anything for the iPhone?

    Reply

  7. Sumocat

    05/27/2009 at 10:14 am

    Fleon: The iPhone OS is built on Darwin, same as Mac OS X.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone_OS
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin_(operating_system)
    They are literally built from the same OS.

    In the case of Canonical’s project, there’s a bigger difference since Android uses the Linux kernel, but is not actually Linux, yet they have been successful in running Android apps in Ubuntu.

    Reply

  8. LeeN

    05/27/2009 at 10:24 am

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I don’t understand what that foundation is since I don’t have experience with OSX. The only thing I can do is guess that you mean that iphone apps could theoretically run more transparently in OSX.

    In any case, I’ve wanted for a long time for there to be a Valve Steam like service for applications, or for Steam to start selling more then games. I’ve also thought it would be interested to have a linux app store where you could easily buy apps and donate to open source developers.

    Reply

  9. Sumocat

    05/27/2009 at 10:38 am

    LeeN: Okay, I guess you were typing when I posted my previous comment, so let me spell it out for everyone: both the iPhone OS and Mac OS X are versions of the Darwin operating system.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin_(operating_system)
    I’ve made no speculation or assumptions on this. They are listed as Darwin releases.

    Reply

  10. GoodThings2Life

    05/27/2009 at 12:33 pm

    There is only one, yes, ONE application that I would potentially want to run on a full-blown PC that is only (that I know of) available on a mobile platform… Live Search for Windows Mobile… and the only reason I’d want to run it is for the Gas Prices tracker.

    Sure, sure, I’m sure there’s another way to get that through the Live Search site, but I haven’t taken the time to do it, and it’s not obvious.

    Beyond that, I agree with some of the commenters here that running a mobile app on a PC for any purpose other than testing via emulation seems like a complete waste. The only reason I *choose* to run a mobile app at all is because mobile platforms are, by design, limited platforms. Beyond that, I and everyone I know prefer to have a full-fledged system to get real work done.

    I mean, really, it’s… cute… that people are using their iPhone to do sketches for magazine covers, and it’s cute that people enjoy netbooks for trivial mobile web surfing and document editing, but I’ve never found anyone outside a tech site that says, “Gee I wish I had a smaller screen to edit these Word documents and Excel spreadsheets on!”

    Reply

  11. Sumocat

    05/27/2009 at 12:51 pm

    GT2L: C’mon, I specified the consumer market, not business, and mentioned a dashboard-style experience. I made no argument that this would be a draw for business or “real work”.

    Reply

  12. Fleon

    05/27/2009 at 12:56 pm

    Sumo: Yes, they are built from the same OS, but they aren’t built for the same hardware, an emulator would have to be a full hardware emulator the way they are currently built.

    To do what you are saying, you’d have to do a full cross-compile, and at that point you have nothing different than two different applications – just like you can do now. There’s no benefit.

    Reply

  13. Sumocat

    05/27/2009 at 1:22 pm

    Fleon: And yet I’m looking at a photo of Android apps running on Ubuntu. It’s not a matter doing what I’m saying; I’m reporting what Canonical is doing. If they can do it with Android and Ubuntu, two different OSes on different hardware, I don’t see why Apple can’t do it with iPhone and Mac OS X. Maybe the other guys won’t be able to pull it off, but that’s why I cited a powerful advantage to Apple.

    Reply

  14. Fleon

    05/27/2009 at 1:57 pm

    That’s fine, but your statements in the article were simply wrong. There’s no greater technological advantage for them doing it because of their similar operating systems than for anyone else.

    Reply

  15. Sumocat

    05/27/2009 at 2:25 pm

    Fleon: Except Canonical’s system takes advantage of the shared kernel used by both Android and Ubuntu, so while they are two different operating systems, the breakthrough does rely on a shared component. The iPhone OS and Mac OS X also share the same kernel, plus the rest of the components that make up Darwin. I would think that would give them an added edge, particularly since Darwin supports both ARM and x86.

    Reply

  16. Gyula Bognar

    05/27/2009 at 7:08 pm

    Prophesy is difficult and seldom comes through. Linux cannot get public acceptance, past 2% “market share” so even if they are a 100% successful, the impact is minimal. If Linux developers were more market savvy, they would fix their OS to be like Mac OS or even Windows, which installs and works, has a nice GUI and one does not have to know programming to set it up. Let me say my prophesy and everybody should hope, I am wrong. Linux is not going to get into the major league in the next 100 years.

    Reply

  17. Sara Fauzia

    05/30/2009 at 6:36 pm

    “If Linux developers were more market savvy, they would fix their OS to be like Mac OS or even Windows, which installs and works, has a nice GUI and one does not have to know programming to set it up.”

    That ranks high among the most *ignorant* comments I’ve read online. I’m a Linux user, and, before then, for a good eighteen years only exposed to Windows. I thought Linux was for the geek you stereotypically classified. Every day, Linux is coming up with updates that make it better and easier to use, and new software developers are innovating. I just downloaded a lightweight volume manager (to mount external hardware devices) that didn’t exist before this year. It works wonderfully, and isn’t so heavyweight and bloated that I can’t stand it. Which brings me to my next point. Linux can be as Windows-ish as you want it to be (i.e. bloated), or it can be as lightweight as you care to make it. It’s your own choice. You can choose–simply by choosing which Linux distro to install, nothing more complicated than that–to have a very efficient automated system, where you never even see the commandline, like openSUSE, or configure everything yourself and experience great performance and fast boots… and for the latter you *still* don’t have to be a programmer. Linux users are so friendly that they’ll copy and paste anything they’ve already written for others to use, and, since Google is available to all, there’s no excuse for not finding what is out there.

    As for a nice GUI, it’s incredibly easy to change the GUI in Linux. You just download a theme into your .themes directory (a no-brainer, and easily understood if searched through google), or, if you’re using Ubuntu (or any other distro that uses GNOME, a desktop environment already configured with… you would have never guessed, automated services to do everything for you except tie your shoelaces), the Appearance Manager will install it for you. Try imagining changing your themes, or your icon files, so easily in Windows.

    Your prophecy is absolutely untenable as it is already based on false assumptions. Sorry.

    Reply

  18. Sara Fauzia

    05/30/2009 at 6:40 pm

    I should have said changing themes, though you can certainly change the GUI by using a different desktop environment as well, such as KDE. Google it sometime.

    Oh, and in response to this article, I think the idea is fantastic. I’ve had some programs only on my Palm that I wanted to use on the desktop, and I had actually registered just to get the emulator and use it (when I was using Windows–the emulator was for Windows; could perhaps work in Wine, but it isn’t that necessary). I am, unfortunately, quite unfamiliar with the software available to the Android… I do know, as a tablet PC user, I’d like to have my hands on that Cupcake virtual keyboard. This has great potential and I’m glad Canonical is taking an interest; wouldn’t be bad for Apple too, either.

    Reply

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