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14 August 2013

Ubuntu at the Edge of Technology



Ubuntu Edge has been the big talk in the technology word this Summer. Canonical has played the gambit: instead of waiting for the industry to produce an handset capable of realising its concept of superphone, it simply decided to develop its own. Decided might be the wrong choice of verb, for it happen Canonical is demanding 24 million euros, to be crowd-funded through IndieGogo. With just a week to go the campaign is yet to reach a third of this ambitious goal, but the 10 million dollars harnessed so far (7.5 million euros) is nothing short of spectacular, on track to break all previous records in crow-funding history.

Three points on this story deserve a deeper reflection.

There is a market

At this stage more than 10 000 folk have already pledged for an Ubuntu Edge, the demand for a superphone is now proven. This is not the traditional smartphone used mostly as a fashion product. Take the iPhone for instance, popular among teenagers, it is used as a phone, to play games, connect to the internet if a network is available and perhaps listen to some music. These devices spend most of their lifetime executing the NOP instruction.

Ubuntu Edge is nothing alike. The superphone is above all a productivity device, bringing your workspace with you wherever you go in the palm of your hand. Here on my desk I have an old laptop on which I'm write these lines, a digital camera, an decrepit dumbphone, an MP3 player and a few flash drives; the Ubuntu Edge promises to replace all of it at once. Suddenly my main workspace can be merged with all the devices I interact with, and in the end there's only one workspace, what Canonical calls Convergence.

No, this is not the kind stuff a modern teenager wishes for Christmas, but don't take the superphone for a geek thing. In the corporate world a device like the Ubuntu Edge brings about important advantages. It reduces the amount of hardware to procure and maintain, it simplifies the relationship between users and IT support, by reducing the scope to a single workspace, it eliminates issues related to data synchronisation between devices. And possibly much more that I can't anticipate at this time, the arrival of this kind of device can be very disruptive, in a good way.

In essence, even if Canonical fails to bring the Ubuntu Edge on the market, the superphone is a class of device destined to arrive.

Lack of advertising

An interesting point on this campaign is the lack of advertising, which would be expected were Canonical a more commercially oriented company. Instead, the campaign rellies mostly on the word of mouth, propagated through virtual social networks. The main consequence has been a wave of negative reviews by the specialised press. The arguments to deter users from pledging for an Ubuntu Edge vary: some say it can't compete with existing smartphones, others claim to have already too many devices to play with. The press lives of advertising, and naturally tends to be nicer towards products that bring a lump sum attached to it; the Ubuntu Edge simply doesn't fit their business model.

Is the lack of advertising the reason why the 24 million euros goal seems so far at this stage? At least not entirely, the sheer size of the sum and the fact that the campaign is being run during the slowest time of year are also playing a role. But in the end a goal this ambitious probably could never succeed without full backing from the specialised press.

An interesting exercise is going at YouTube watching a few amateur reviews. Folk that seem to be completely outside the open source universe show the same enthusiasm as your regular Ubuntu user. The numbers speak for themselves, a palm size device with such computing power is something unspoken of; its power to change the way we interact with computers is easily recognised. The contrast with the specialised reviews is obvious and is perhaps telling something about the viability of these news outlets.

The battery

Although overlooked in most reviews out there the battery is actually the star of the show. There is a reason why hardware makers are not shipping superphones yet: if they cast, say, eight cores on a chipset, there is no palm size battery able to take it for a relevant period of time. Canonical takes on this issue in the face, simply going ahead with an alternative technology. Silicon-anode Lithium-ion batteries are not yet present in any commercial device; if successful, Ubuntu Edge might well be the very first to feature such technology. There is indeed a risk, but this sort of battery is not entirely novel, it is more of an improvement over the standard Lithium-ion design. The promise is to hike energy density by a factor between five and ten, meaning an Ubuntu Edge running perhaps days on a single charge.

If entirely successful the benefits to other applications can become the most important outcome of the Ubuntu Edge campaign. Imagine the autonomy of an electric car increasing to 1000 km. Dreams, I know, but telling that it is a company like Canonical taking the lead in this direction.

Conclusion

All this talk to tell you to pledge for an Ubuntu Edge. It is now going for 530 euros (give or take), a price that is an incentive in itself. It is an interesting investment with little risk; if the campaign fails to reach its goal you get your money back, if it succeeds you get an exclusive device perhaps an year or two ahead of the market. A successful campaign equates to about 40 000 units produced, a figure that is clearly in the realm of collectors' items. With its metal casing and sapphire glass it is something made to last, and retain value with time.

Go ahead and get a bit of the future today.