Mark Shuttleworth: The Ubuntu Edge was a 'time machine'

Mark Shuttleworth: The Ubuntu Edge was a 'time machine'

Summary: Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth on how the Ubuntu Edge would have been a "time machine" offering a glimpse at the future of mobiles.


The Ubuntu Edge phone would have been "years ahead" of other mobiles — a handset that offered a glimpse of how phones would be used in future, says Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical founder and driving force behind the Edge.

But those grand plans are now on hold, after an attempt to raise $32m to develop and manufacture the Linux phone through the website Indiegogo fell almost $20m short of its target.

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth shows off Ubuntu on a Nexus 10 tablet. Photo: Ben Woods / ZDNet

The failure to get the phone off the ground is disappointing to Shuttleworth for a number of reasons, not least that he saw the Edge way to shake up a slightly stale mobile market dominated by "slabs of glass" that all broadly do the same thing.

"We thought we could take a leap forward two or three years in terms of the capabilities of today's phone through the Edge," he said, referencing plans to give the phone specs more akin to a PC, with an 128GB SSD and at least 4GB of RAM.

This PC-level hardware was key to realising Canonical's vision for the Edge to be both a desktop computer and a phone – thanks to an adaptive interface would give the phone a smartphone OS in the hand and a desktop interface when docked with a monitor.

"It certainly raised eyebrows in the phone industry in a good way. Folks feel there's a hunger for something new and it sent a signal as to what that something new might look like," said Shuttleworth.

But despite more than 24,000 people backing the idea – some more than once – Shuttleworth says the fact people weren't willing to stump up means he has to accept that maybe the world doesn't yet want a single device to act as their phone and PC.

"It's hard to mount a vociferous defence against that. If there was a total outpouring of support for the idea then we'd be making the device," he said.

"The level of support for the project certainly surprised a lot of people in industry, [but] it wasn't enough for us as an outsider to get over the hump.

"But if we had been a mainstream manufacturer and seen that amount of support, the device would be happening for sure."

Indeed a handset maker almost rode to the rescue of the campaign, Shuttleworth said, as it had looked like a manufacturer enamoured with the Edge might offer to take care of its design, tooling and manufacturing and allow Canonical to reduce the fundraising target for the phone to the point where it could have produced the handset.

"There were a couple of points in the last two weeks where we really thought that a lot of those relationships would potentially bump us much closer to the goal," said Shuttleworth.

"We just couldn't get one of those to connect before the time ran out."

The amount of money sought through crowd funding was ambitious, both in the campaign's $32m funding target and the $830 it initially cost backers to get a phone. If Shuttleworth were to run the crowd funding exercise again he said he'd likely take steps to lower both the target and cost of the phone to backers.

"The core lesson for me was if we want to try that again we should secure substantially more industrial commitment to the concept, which would essentially cover the base development costs. At which point you could set a much lower target, $10 or $20 million, and give the folks who back the project a very strong signal that they could get the device at cost before it went onto the market."

Ubuntu phone – coming 2014

With the plans for the Edge shelved Shuttleworth said his focus is now on persuading handset makers to ship a device running Ubuntu.

Canonical is aiming for Ubuntu to be available on two "mid-range" and two "high-end" phones in 2014.

Shuttleworth believes that a phone running Ubuntu will be available to buy in the first half of 2014, and a "tablet will take us another six months or so". His timetable appears to have slipped from earlier in the year, when he said he hoped an Ubuntu phone would be available in January 2014, followed by a tablet in April.

Three large handset manufacturers have installed the Ubuntu Touch OS on next-generation prototype handsets and have presented it to 12 US carriers, according to Shuttleworth. 

"There's this dance going on at the moment between carriers and manufacturers, obviously there are no guarantees in that but we are as far along as I could have hoped we could be at this stage," he said.

Carriers who are interested in offering an Ubuntu phone are looking at it to serve the "25 percent of users" who want to a smartphone but are not going use a lot of apps, he said.

"These users essentially are going to use the phone for web browsing, messaging and calls.

The developer preview of the Ubuntu Touch OS was released earlier this year. Image: Canonical

"These are slightly more conservative phone users who to carry a smartphone, but they want something a little bit more coherent and elegant than Android."

Shuttleworth said the core difference between Ubuntu and Android on handsets will be it will deliver a "crisper, cleaner experience, but on the downside we won't have all the same apps that Android has on day one".

Ubuntu, in Shuttleworth's view, also has "all of the security infrastructure that Linux typically provides, whereas Android got rid of quite a lot of that in order to be an embedded platform".

Version 1.0 of the Ubuntu Touch OS, which will be "very basic" but will support a phone OS, is on track to ship in October, followed by a second major release in April of next year. Ubuntu Touch will eventually merge with the code base for Ubuntu running on desktop and servers and simply be known as Ubuntu.

The developer's preview of Ubuntu Touch was made available earlier this year and has been ported by the community to a variety of phones and tablets.

Will Shuttleworth return to the Edge?

While Shuttleworth has no plans to revive the campaign to manufacture the Edge at present, and he wouldn't try again without a "better proposition", he doesn't rule out a having another go at crowd funding in future.

"There was enough interest in the Edge idea that it is worth us thinking about how we could again use crowd funding to get that time machine going, and stretch the phone industry beyond where it would naturally stretch itself," he said.

Related stories about Ubuntu on phones

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Open Source


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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  • Mark Shuttleworth: The Ubuntu Edge was a 'time machine'

    That's funny because when I see linux I always feel like I'm going back in time.
    • Another fine joke from ZDNET best jester

      Have a glass.
      • Mr. Davidson's act

        would be a HUGE hit at LinuxCon.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Mr. Davidson: "when I see linux I always feel like I'm going back in time"

      Understandable. The last version of Windows where one was in total control of the OS was Windows XP.

      Can anyone tell me, please, how to turn off and disable the Windows Vista Task Scheduler service?
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Try this DuckDuckGo...

        DuckDuckGo: Stop Task Scheduler in Windows 7/VISTA

        Don't know if it works.
  • No time machine

    Its a failed concept and the 'Edge' is nothing more than a joke.
    • If it is a failed concept and a joke...

      Then Windows RT is also a failed concept and a joke.

      Only it cost a couple of billion dollars to find that out.
  • Time machine, but it's a moving target

    I love Ubuntu and use it. I would love to see this take off. But man do they have a tough world to take on. The Edge sounds pretty cool today. But when it finally ships, there will be a Galaxy S5 and how many other superphones coming out. Canonical is not Apple: you can't be a hardware and software maker both, you just can't compete with the giants trying to do everything.

    What I would love is to see Canonical port stable releases of their software to 4-5 of the most popular power phones like the S3, S4, HTC One and Moto X, not just the Nexus 4. Put out a ROM for goodness sake or encourage and support ROM developers to do so. Then we could all take a nice fast phone like a $250 used S3 and actually use it as a second phone, wifi phone, hook it up to a monitor, run it as a web server . . . you know, the kind of cool things people do with Linux desktops, only expanded to mobile.

    I can get Cyanogen Mod 10 as a ROM for my phone and tablet . . . but not Ubuntu. FROWNY FACE.
    • That would be cool!

      If they could pull it off, I would certainly try it.

      I like the edge concept, it would work well for me.
    • Samsung

      I suppose part of the idea is that a manufacturer like Samsung (or probably HTC or LG etc) would prefer their own phone OS to differentiate themselves from the usual Android phones - after all, why does anyone buy a LG phone when they can (and do) buy a Galaxy.

      If Ubuntu mobile/desktop OS could work, then whichever manufacturer gets it on their devices first could end up being the new Samsung (or the new Microsoft). Its still a gamble, but its better than just producing another Android phone and hoping that somehow this model would attract all the users away from the now established Samsung brand.
  • something's not right

    could someone explain how come there is a visionary with a groundbreaking product on mind with more than enough resources at his disposal yet the outcome is will not happen because we haven't raised enough?
    • Why crowdsourcing, you ask?

      He was using crowdsourcing to verify his belief that his revolutionary product would, if manufactured, find a viable market. As opposed to Microsoft, envisioning a world where Surface RT would be a massive hit, only to find they were totally off the mark (to the tune of a around a billion dollars). I don't blame him for wanting to ensure there was a market before putting up his money.
      • well

        just imagine jobs and his ipad ending this way
  • 12 carriers

    "presented it to 12 US carriers, according to Shuttleworth. "

    12 US carriers?
    • Maybe

      Maybe he also approached American Airlines and Greyhound, cause 12 carriers does seem high. ;)

      (Though I'm sure if you count all the small regional resellers, like Cricket, you'll probably hit 12.)
    • Yeah...

      That probably includes "carriers" like VirginMobile, Cricket, BoostMobile, Net10, etc.
      Hallowed are the Ori
  • Nothing special

    He couldn't raise $32m for this project that he calls a "time machine", and Linux is supposed to be great.
    Sound more like a "shit machine"
  • Too bad he could not go back in time

    he would have seen that he would not have been able to acquire the funds to build it.
    John Zern
    • future

      That would b going to the future
  • Lack of understanding af crowd funding mechanisms...

    I purchased one of the first 5000 phones in this crowd funding campaign, so I followed the campaign closely. It was indeed a very optimistic campaign goal, but if Canonical had approached this differently, they would have gotten even closer to (or passed) that 32m$ mark. They obviously didn't analyze closely the anatomy of previously successful crowd funding campaigns, because the mistakes they made were crowd funding beginner mistakes.

    What really stands out was the lack of crowd engagement and feedback to the crowd from canonical that they are listening and learning. A successful campaign requires an intense devotion during the time the campaign is running.

    - You need to be insanely active in the commentary fields, making sure you engage with the crowd as much as possible. Answer as many questions as possible - The crowd funding period should be an intense period where you as a product maker are doing everything possible to make your campaign happen. Never just sit back and expect everything to just magically happen.

    - Make sure you learn from the crowd - Make changes to the product and perks based on what the crowd tells you. This is absolutely crucial for two reasons. 1 - You create a better basis for the crowd to WANT to succeed with the campaign. 2 - You create the exact product the crowd wants (they might have some really good ideas!).

    - Make more updates! and make them reflect that you are in it together with the crowd.

    Canonical missed that - This was a very disappointing campaign month compared to other campaigns I have participated in.
    Jacob Top Moller