Mark Shuttleworth's vision: Is the future one device?

Summary:Jason Perlow calls "one device" the natural evolution of Post-PC. Matt Baxter Reynolds says it's a solution in search of a problem.

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Yes

or

No

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Best Argument: Yes

55%
45%

Audience Favored: Yes (55%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

The natural evolution of Post-PC

Jason Perlow: Whether you are an adherent to developing for or an evangelist for Apple, Google, Microsoft's or Canonical's mobile operating systems, I believe that the basic concepts Mark Shuttleworth is championing with his crowd-funded "Edge" smartphone are fundamentally universal to the future of computing.

Specifically, I am referring to the fact that Shuttleworth believes that the smartphone of the future will be the single device at the center of the end-user's universe. In summary, it will act as a "brain" for the tablet, laptop, and even TV sets, which will simply be just modular display and peripheral extensions of the handheld device.

In the future, smartphones will contain the CPU, storage, and wireless connectivity "core" of the user experience, running on a unified mobile operating system — and in the case of the "Edge" should it achieve its super-ambitious funding targets, Ubuntu running on the ARM architecture. But it could very well and just as easily end up running on an operating system created by the usual suspects, even if the Edge never sees the light of day.

Instead of carrying three devices — a smartphone, tablet, and laptop, all of which would have discrete storage and memory, and would have to be independently managed — the user would just carry the smartphone and have attachable modules, such as a tablet screen, a large high-definition display, a detachable keyboard and wireless human interface devices that the smartphone would plug into or communicate with. That, along with seamless integration with Cloud-based services, is where I see the future of personal computing truly heading.

No one needs a device like this

Matt Baxter-Reynolds: In his video introduction to Ubuntu Edge, Mark Shuttleworth says that "convergence is the future of computing". What Ubuntu Edge is trying to do is *converge* two worlds -- PC and post-PC -- into a single device. (Yes, although it runs Linux, it's still a PC. It's just not a PC that runs Windows.)

First problem here, PC and post-PC devices are used for, and are good at, very different things. PCs are very good at focused work activities. Post-PC devices, like smartphones, are very good at being in the background, always available, always connected, ready to connect you into your digital life on a whim.

What Shuttleworth is actual describing here is "hybridity". Hybridity just means "mixing things". Sometimes, hybridity experiments result in valuable convergence. A great example is the camera phone.

But in more cases than not in our industry, hybridity does not create convergence, it just creates weird mishmashes of technology solutions looking for problems to solve .

Ubuntu Edge is just one destined-for-failure hybridity experiment that will forever be a cool solution looking for a problem. No one needs a device like this -- there is no problem it solves.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome back to our Great Debate

    This week we'll discuss whether one device-fits-all is a fad or the future. Debaters ready?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    I'm ready

    Let's roll

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    All set

    Look out Jason, I've done my homework.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Overwhelmed with devices

    Let's take a step back and start with the obvious question. Can we all agree that most people--especially the most technically-inclined--now have too many devices that do too many overlapped functions and force us to too much of our own integration to make our apps and data sync across all of these devices?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Yes, but the cloud is critical

    I do believe the answer to this is yes, but that without Cloud-based services, the integration and data synchronization would be impossible or extremely impractical.

    I can say from personal experience I own too many devices, even though not all of them are used simultaneously due to the nature of being someone who writes about the mobile device industry as part of my overall coverage area.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    No, we're looking for simplicity

    Aha. Actually, no I don't agree with that.

    The goal of post-PC is to obtain simplicity. One way to do this is to create many devices that are designed to do specific things very well. If my data is in the cloud -- which it should be -- what's the problem with accessing that from a smartphone when I'm out shopping, or a tablet when I'm kicking around the house?

    I don't feel that post-PC devices are forcing *us* to do our own integration. That's the responsibility of whoever is building the services that we're consuming.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What a waste?

    Along the same lines, do you think most users over-paying for the computing power they need to accomplish their everyday tasks? For example, if you own three or even four different types of devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desktop), do you need or want separate computing power for each one?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Tech is still getting cheaper

    I think the technology can still get cheaper. I also think that the scenario you propose of owning four separate devices today for four discrete computing scenarios is only applicable to high-income individuals.

    In reality we are talking only three form factor scenarios since the laptop has for the most part completely displaced the desktop. As I answer this question, I am using a Lenovo X1 Carbon laptop in my home office connected to a HD monitor and a USB 3.0 hub as a dock for an external keyboard, mouse and other peripherals.

    So the trend towards convergence and cannibalizing computing roles/scenarios has already proven itself in the industry. The question now is how much further convergence and platform unification going to go?

    Getting back to the the issue of overpaying, I'd like to flip this on its head and get to the issue of end-users who can only pay so much for their computing. There is an entire growing segment of the population who already only own one device to meet their computing needs because they are largely income-constrained.

    The Pew Research Center for example back in March recently released results of a study regarding Internet use among Americans of Latino (Hispanic) heritage.

    This study concluded that Latinos primarily depend on their mobile devices, rather than desktop and laptop computers when accessing the Internet. 76 percent, versus 60 percent of White Americans.
    As we dig even further into the study's data, we learn that nearly half of Latino adults live in smartphone-only households, and that smartphone adoption can be correlated with age. More specifically those Latinos between ages of 18 to 29 are much more likely to own a smartphone than those ages 65 and older.

    This study of course targeted only one demographic group in one large country, and I would expect we would see similar rates of mobile technology adoption in other large demographics in the US and in other countries that are forced to do more with less.

    So in my opinion it isn't that people are necessarily overpaying for all of their technology -- it's that their financial means are forcing them to think very carefully about what technologies are the best for them to use.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Do we need convergence?

    This is the classic technologists fallacy that pushes us in the direction of hybrids for the sake of it, rather than convergence that delivers value.

    Technologists see someone with a laptop and a tablet and think "what a waste! There are two screens, two batteries, two disks! Converge all the things!" But that's not convergence -- that's just mashing technology together.

    Convergence is only when hybrids work -- such as converging a digital point-and-shoot camera with a smartphone.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Sell, sell, sell

    Since the leading tech companies such Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung are totally incented to sell you as many devices as possible, do agree that they are unlikely to be disruptive in convergence? Which one is most likely to play the role of disrupter and why?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's about people

    So let's get away from the devices and services aspects of each of these companies for a moment -- which I agree is an important part of the an overall picture and will determine who among this group leads and who follows -- and get back to the human beings that are consuming these things, because this is where I believe the true disruption will occur.

    As I answered in the previous question people of lesser means -- which pretty much comprises most of the human beings on this planet  -- are rapidly adopting mobile technology, whether it is smartphones or increasingly tablets.

    As they enter the workforce or want to do more with technology these people -- not the companies you mention -- will drive enhanced computing scenarios for their devices, such as connecting smartphones to desktop screens or televisions (like the way Shuttleworth proposes with the Ubuntu Edge) or even docked into a tablet/battery display combination, much like Motorola pioneered with the original Atrix, which I think was a product that had a great idea that was released before its time.

    The demand for these enhanced scenarios for mobile devices will force the OEMs/ODMs to create devices that better conform to the scenarios users actually can and want to participate in regardless of how many form factors those companies want to actually sell. You can't shove new scenarios down users' throats, the roles are reversed.

    It's the users that determine, along with their dollars, what gets produced. The end-user is the disrupting force. Not any of the companies you mentioned, or any other company trying to enter the well-established mobile application and device ecosystems, Canonical's Ubuntu included.

    Now all of that being said, Microsoft and Google are well positioned to introduce devices to market with either their own OEM branding in conjunction with ODMs or those released in ODM labeling such as Samsung's.

    Based on what we've been hearing about in the news, Apple is heavily investing in semiconductor technology and will own more and more of their own production capacity and component designs. All signs are that some form of ARM-based platform convergence from Cupertino will occur sometime in the future. When that occurs it is hard to say. 

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Little understanding

    The only company out there that appears to be innovating with a clear structure, a clear plan, and a nuanced understanding of what technology is and how it works is Google.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Beneath the Surface

    The Microsoft Surface was a device that was trying to converge the tablet and laptop and it has not had wide appeal. Buyers in general still tend to prefer simpler tablets. Does that bode ill for convergence in general and specifically the Ubuntu Edge?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Tablet and touchscreen do work together

    As a hardcore Surface RT user myself, there are things I like about Surface RT and Windows RT overall, and there are areas where I think there's room for improvement.

    Now all of that being said, the x86-based Surface Pro did quite well. So if its a question of form factor and not platform I believe the product validated that a tablet and touchscreen laptop two-in-one device is quite viable and that end-users and enterprises want to buy a lot of them. And if that is any indication, there will certainly be more devices like the Surface Pro coming from Microsoft's OEM partners in the near future.

    Getting away from Microsoft's own challenges I think we are still in the early stages of convergence, but it is going to become more and more important as the back-end services become richer and shift computational power and business logic from the device to the Cloud. The tipping point will come sooner than we will all think, and there will be reactionary measures taken by some device manufacturers to compensate for this whereas others will have been planning and preparing for it for quite some time.

    The Ubuntu Edge has some very specific challenges, although I personally would like to see them achieve their full $32M crowd-sourced funding target because it would be a massive wake-up call for the entire industry. It would accelerate discussion of convergence and it would cease to become a "should we" issue and would become a "how do we" issue.

    Regardless of whether the Ubuntu Edge succeeds or not I am convinced that convergence has to occur based on what the user actually wants to do with their devices and limited financial resources.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Not meeting needs

    Absolutely -- and that's something hadn't considered before. Surface -- particularly Surface RT's -- hybrid experiment failed because it wasn't hitting needs out there in the market. Microsoft tried to make a better PC. They managed to do this with Surface Pro, but not with Surface RT.

    Ubuntu Edge hits computing needs at a weird point. It talks to the portability of a laptop, providing you're taking it somewhere where you already have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. It isn't a PC form factor at all if you take it down Starbucks for a coffee, unlike every other laptop in the world.

    It's actually much less portable than a laptop, if you think about it.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Motorola failed. Why?

    Motorola also tried a similar smartphone-as-PC experiment with its Webtop software, devices such as the Atrix, and various docks, but it ultimately failed. Was it just too early to market or is there a fundamental problem with the idea?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Before its time

    They were too early and the implementation on the hardware itself for the dock and the user experience was bad. The UI on the Android phone piece was completely different from the UI and application environment when it was docked. It behaved like two different products. Had the device and application experience been consistent and the industrial design of the phone and the dock been more seamless, I think we would be having a very different conversation today.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Too complicated

    I think all these devices add too much complexity and cognitive loading for what is supposed to be a simple device. Post-PC is about "grab it, get what you want, get out" -- it's not about "grab it, combine it with something else, find a desk, find a chair, turn it on, get what you want, get out".

    That complexity is fundamentally mismatched.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Enter the Ubuntu Edge

    The two biggest problems with the Motorola Atrix were lack of computing power and a weak desktop experience. Will the Ubuntu Edge overcome those two issues?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Not a mass-market device

    I cannot truly speak for what is going to happen with the Edge and I think we have to view that product as a test-bed for people willing to be early cutting-edge early adopters and not regular end-users that consume these sorts of products in very high volumes.

    Based on the specifications the Edge's hardware looks impressive. If it delivers a rich Ubuntu desktop like that exists for regular Ubuntu x86 systems today while being able to seamlessly merge Android applications into that environment onto that desktop as it is promised, then I think their admittedly small but passionate group of end-users and developers will be happy with it.

    However, I do not believe this is a mass-market device and even Canonical acknowledges this is more of a proof-of-concept for pioneering types that want a very high-end device, not unlike how the Tesla is for people who want to own a luxury electric car.

    The Tesla is not a mass-market electric car, and electric cars have failed as an overall industry, but it has managed to create a nice niche for itself despite the huge challenges the rest of its industry has faced. I see the Edge and Ubuntu's mobile convergence OS as the same kind of thing.

    The ultimate and stated objective of Ubuntu's device OS is to get carriers and device manufacturers to take lessons learned from the Edge and make commodity hardware solutions for the every-man, not $700 ultra-convergence phones.

    But I think the greatest potential for a device like this is not in the host operating system and the locally-running apps, but how well it integrates with cloud-based services.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    It should work

    I guess. What they've designed/pitched seems to be appropriate to the task in hand.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The future of crowd-funding

    What do you think of the concept of crowd-funding Ubuntu Edge as a convergence experiment? If Ubuntu meets its hefty $32 million funding goal to launch this project, do you think it will lead other tech vendors down the same road?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's a bold test case

    I think it is a fun and novel idea and Shuttleworth is a very bold individual that has the advantage of also having considerable of personal wealth should the project require additional help. That being said I do not expect the Microsofts, the Googles, the Apples and the Samsungs of the world to go down the same route.

    If the Edge does complete its funding without Shuttleworth having to step in then I think it will be proof that crowd-funding at large scale is a valid mechanism to help start-up companies accelerate their growth. But not for large established firms.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Formula 1, but for phones

    I think that'll depend on whether it works! Looking at this today (July 30th), I'd be surprised if they made it over the line -- at least without some magical donor dropping in, oh, $10 million at the end.

    What I did really like about the campaign is the positioning that it's "Formula 1, but for phones" -- i.e. a proving ground for new technology that will become mainstream. That I think doe have potential, but the level of funding Canonical is seeking is on the extreme end of the spectrum.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is it enterprise ready?

    How about the enterprise? In announcing the Ubuntu Edge, Mark Shuttleworth said that the device would be an ideal replacement for an enterprise thin client device. That would, of course, mean extra device management. Do you companies willing to make that trade-off?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Shuttleworth is on to something

    So, I think in this case Shuttleworth is on to something. Public and Private Cloud-based desktop hosting has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar industry.

    If enterprises can replace the majority of their PCs with take-it-with-you inexpensive endpoints like a smartphone, tablet or two-in-one that can be used to connect to larger screens as well as access their mission critical applications, be it from on-premises office locations or even remotely then we have true industry disruption. And mature Cloud computing.

    Yes, there will be increased amount of device management from this. But Microsoft, Citrix and others are building the tools to simplify large scale device management using policies and automation, and I think the benefits far outweigh any perceived trade-offs.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    I can't see how it is

    Really? I'm surprise he said that. I can't see how it is. Surely just buying a dedicated thin client device is easier, both from a cost perspective, and also from the perspective that being a mobile device you also have to manage it. That means mobile device management, policies around risk and loss, etc.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Can smartphones be the brains?

    Docking a smartphone on your desk and getting a full desktop or thin client experience is simple enough. Most users would have a very similar experience to what they have now. However, using the smartphone as the brains to power a tablet or a laptop or even a TV would involve changing user behavior in some ways. Can it work, and if so how do you see it improving the user experience?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    How to make it work

    So, smartphone OSes and tablet OSes and even laptops/desktops can be designed to have a consistent user experience. Microsoft is doing this now by providing the overall Windows experience across device categories with the Modern Windows UI and that remains integral to the company's strategy going forward.

    This is also exactly what Ubuntu is doing by having a unified user interface for multiple form factors and takes this a step further by proposing a single binary application format. Google is also doing this but has no true desktop aspirations yet, and Chrome OS remains separate from Android, at least for now.

    While Apple has a unified application binary format for iPhone and iPad, not all their developers have embraced this yet in their applications and the Mac remains having its own separate OS, despite clear indications that convergence is pending, if you've been reading the tea leaves and watching just how many UI elements and apps are being backported from iOS to Mac OS X.

    So, "Will it work" from a purely technical perspective has much to do with how well each of these companies can make the UX seamless across their platforms and how easy it is for developers to write applications that perform equally well among these use case scenarios.

    Changing fundamental user behavior, on the other hand, is much more difficult to do than unifying device experiences. But as I said there are cost drivers in play that are compelling users to buy less devices or consolidate their usage of computing devices. So it's not really a case of "Can it work" but precisely, "How do we make it work."

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Simplicity is key

    This reminds me of what I think BlackBerry is trying to do. They think of themselves as the center of the compute universe, and look to drive processing horsepower out to other "dumb" devices to improve the experience.

    Again, it comes down to simplicity. If it's not simple -- if it's not "here's my tablet, press the on switch, click Netflix, and I'm done!" -- it won't work. That's one of the only rules of post-PC devices, you can't complicate it.

    Incidentally, that's why I like the idea of Chromecast. It just makes a television set a little better without adding too much complexity.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The role of the cloud

    Is the cloud the most important ally for converged devices? A big part of the benefit of the converged scenario is the ability to share apps and data and preferences across multiple computing environments. The cloud facilitates that, but solutions to make it work are still widely fragmented and in need of development in many cases. Can the type of convergence that Shuttleworth is championing succeed without a strong set of cloud services to help make it all work?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    We're lost without it

    Without cloud-based services, be it Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon's, or any number of other services offered by 3rd-parties that plug into those ecosystems, we would not be enjoying our devices the same way as we do today. What Shuttleworth proposes cannot exist without the Cloud and I think he and Canonical fully realizes that this is the case.

    All of this being said, where the differentiation among the players I mentioned above is going to occur is in the variety and quality of the Cloud-based services offered. Whoever offers the best services ultimately will attract the most attention from users and spawn the creation of 3rd-party applications and services enabling the consolidated/converged use-case scenarios.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    It's here whether we like it or not

    I'm not sure that's important -- whether converged devices like Ubuntu Edge end up being a thing or not, the cloud will become the master repository of anything that we do anyway. It's very "PC" to keep master copies locally. Post-PC demands master copies in the cloud. I suspect this point will work out in the wash.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

Closing Statements

Hurtling toward platform unification

Jason Perlow

My opponent is well-known for being a proponent of the "Post-PC" philosophy, a term originally coined by Apple's Steve Jobs. He's even writing a book about it.

What Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth proposes with his Ubuntu Edge is going even further than Steve Jobs' "Post-PC" concept, and into what I would call Computing Convergence, for lack of a better term.

Shuttleworth has posted a few videos online in which he talks about how he envisions the future of Ubuntu Tablet/Mobile OS and the Ubuntu Edge Smartphone.

Of course, what Shuttleworth does not talk about in these videos describing the benefits of such platform unification or convergence is the back-end public and private cloud infrastructure that this mobile OS would need to leverage in order to run the most demanding sorts of applications, via web APIs and desktop as a service (DaaS).

However, this is implied. A mobile operating system cannot run enterprise application workloads, and despite a trend towards mobile apps, our desktop applications will be with us for a very long time even if the PC and x86 itself becomes an endangered species. This is something that my opponent has not once been able to address even with his Post-PC and PC death hypothesis that he is so fond of.

Over the years, I have talked at length about Cloud-based remote computing, and what shape and form the endpoint devices might have. I've used the term "The Screen" to refer to a SoC-based thin client that would be a hybrid of localized processing of mobile apps in combination with desktop apps running remotely in the datacenter.

I have also written some highly speculative things about what I thought computing would be like in the third decade of the 21st century. The reality is that many of things are closer to reality than I thought, whereas other things are still much further away.

Today, "The Screen" exists as discrete computing devices such as smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes (Apple TV, etc) and even thin clients like Chromebooks.

However, in the future, perhaps some five or ten years from now, that distinction between form factors may not even exist, because end-users all over the world with constrained financial means will drive new computing scenarios which that will force the device manufacturers as well as the software platform creators to adapt to this new modality and a Cloud-based paradigm shift away from localized processing.

For Shuttleworth's vision to become a reality, you need platform unification. In other words, the smartphone, tablet and desktop OS need to become the same operating system, the same developer target and ultimately, the same device.

Clearly, this is a natural evolution from what Canonical is doing with Ubuntu, what Microsoft is doing with Windows, what Google is doing with Android and Chrome, and even what Apple is doing with iOS and Mac OS X.

Market's not in the mood for reimagining the PC

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

I've enjoyed reading the thoughts from my esteemed colleague, but I still don't know what this thing is *for*.

Confession time: I totally forgot to do this closing statement before I went on location. I'm in a hospital waiting room typing this on my phone. I'm *literally* phoning it in.

And you know what? It's fine. Because its a post-PC device and its doing what it needs to do well.

Edge isn't a post-PC device. It's a tiny PC that's also a smartphone. It's more of reimagining of the PC than anything else. And the market isn't in the mood for reimagining of the PC. What the market likes is dirt cheap, "just about good enough kit".

I admire Shuttleworth's idea of "Formula 1 for phones", and I have invested in the IndieGoGo campaign to the tune of $700-odd, but I'm struggling to see how any outcome of the project will result in a successful post-PC, Consumerland project.

See also:

 

Convergence ahead

Jason Hiner

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is right that convergence has to be about simplicity first. And Jason Perlow nails it when he says that user experience is a massive challenge for these convergence devices and that it literally makes or breaks the outcome.

The question then becomes whether there's a possibility that someone can do a seamless user experience that unites devices, saves people money by limiting the amount of computing power they are forced to purchase, and uses the cloud to help simplify roaming across multiple screens.

Based on the arguments in this debate, Perlow did a lot more to convince me that it's not only possible--but highly likely--and so he gets the nod. The Ubuntu Edge may not revolutionize the market, but as a concept it may catalyze convergence, even if it never sees the light of day.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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