Ubuntu Edge: Canonical's Big Gamble

Is the new limited edition phone cutting-edge or over the edge?
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Ubuntu Edge is either an idea of genius or a desperate gamble by an increasingly out of touch executive team. Or perhaps it is both at once.

But no matter how you view this effort to promote innovation in mobile technology, it raises endless questions about Canonical's chances for success in the mobile field and Ubuntu's relationship with the larger free and open source software (FOSS) community.

Announced after seven days of a teaser on Ubuntu's front page, Ubuntu Edge shows no shortage of chutzpah. Despite the fact that Ubuntu and its commercial face Canonical have yet to establish themselves in the mobile market, the project is set on doing nothing less than setting the agenda for phones for the entire industry.

Moreover, it is attempting to do so by raising a record $32 million on Indiegogo and offering a limited edition phone. So far, the campaign seems a success. In the first day of the campaign, over 5,000 contributors reserved their phones with a donation of $600 or more, and $3.3 million was pledged. Assuming that Ubuntu has planned promotions to keep the interest strong over the next month, the campaign might very well reach its goal.

However, whether the fundraiser will succeed is only the first question that Ubuntu Edge invites.

Finding a Business Niche

Most of the questions about Ubuntu Edge have nothing to do with the phone itself. The intended technical specs include a metal case with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal screen and the ability to switch between Ubuntu and Android. Not just resolution, but brightness and color accuracy will be priorities for the screen, and the camera will be optimized for informal conditions with low light settings and fast response time.

It's currently vaporware, but as Ubuntu and Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth notes in the promotional video, not so revolutionary that it shouldn't be deliverable in ten months. As a result, anyone with any interest in technology at all is likely to drool just a little over the prospects.

However, one question that can be easily overlooked as everyone enthuses over the specs is why Ubuntu is attempting crowdsourcing at all.

Shuttleworth's video gives the reason. Over the last few months of developing a phone, he says, "We learned that new mobile phone technologies get proven in the lab, and then hit a production road block because manufacturers don't want to select a new technology for a device that's supposed to sell ten or fifty million units until they know it can be produced at this scale."

That sounds very much like Shuttleworth and many before him (including the developers of the KDE-based Vivaldi tablet) have learned a lesson: it's hard to break into a market where you have no experience and hard to get experience when you aren't already in the market.

In other words, for all the critical acclaim that Ubuntu has received for its phone development, the response of manufacturers may have been disappointing—perhaps even creating a bottleneck that prevents retailers from carrying Ubuntu products even if they want to.

From this perspective, Ubuntu Edge might be interpreted as an effort to establish a toe-hold in the phone market. Shuttleworth himself is disingenuous on the subject, insisting that "we're not trying to get into the phone business," then with the next breath suggesting that an annual limited edition phone might be forthcoming. Ubuntu Edge might be a boutique phone, selling only a few thousand each year, but it definitely sounds like a business venture.

At any rate, even if Ubuntu Edge is not meant to turn a profit, it might still be meant as an aid to other Canonical products. If Ubuntu can succeed with a limited edition, prestige phone—especially one that manages to set the technological standards for the entire industry—then Canonical's own phones might prove more acceptable to manufacturers and retailers. Like Google's first Android phones, Ubuntu Edge seems an effort to bypass the bottleneck that all new hardware designers face.

Or does anyone believe that Ubuntu Edge is a disinterested effort to save the phone industry from itself? In recent years, Canonical has only invested in FOSS projects that serve its own interests and in which it can assume a leadership role. Ubuntu Edge seems a similar move, except that it is aimed more obviously at the mobile market.

Another question that arises from the specs is that, if Ubuntu Edge is such a potential winner, why is it being crowdsourced? One possibility is that the publicity that would accompany a successful crowdsourcing campaign is as valuable as the funding.

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Tags: open source, Android, smartphone, FOSS, Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu Edge

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