Ubuntu Edge: A grand experiment for the future of computing does not constitute a failure

Ubuntu Edge: A grand experiment for the future of computing does not constitute a failure

Summary: Are we so obsessed with failure that we are unable to see the value in a lesson learned for the mobile industry?

Ubuntu's Edge: It's not the right time

Predictably, the Ubuntu Edge missed its funding target. And thus the naysayers rejoiced, cheering with glee that Mark Shuttleworth’s and Canonical’s grand experiment was not to be.

The tech culture is infested with a tendency to project failure onto new ideas, particularly if sacred cows are being threatened by them. It’s like attending a NASCAR or Formula 1 event with the hopes of seeing a gruesome crash by a freshman driver, rather than for the fun of watching the race itself and enjoying  the upstarts give the established racing teams a run for the money.

Some of us like Matthew Baxter-Reynolds would like to call raising nearly $13M out of a $32M target a failure.

I would posit that what we have just witnessed is that there is verifiable proof that there’s a large group of people that would love to see something different come out of the mobile industry. And Canonical should be commended rather than being jeered at for trying out a new concept and taking the kind of risks that others in our industry have not.

It’s as if no matter what you do, nobody can be made happy. Wall Street and industry writers/analysts navel gaze and fire pot shots when Apple and Google/Samsung/et cetera don’t get innovative enough with their products and engage in iterative aesthetic improvements and gimmickry rather than releasing things that are truly transformative.

But try something radically different and have it not take off like a rocket the first time around? Oh, well then you’re a failure.

By the way, in case anyone needs reminding, I work for Microsoft, a competitor to Canonical, so I understand firsthand what it means for companies to take substantial risks with new and innovative products.

We all know what the consequences are of waiting too long to take risks. BlackBerry waiting three years after the release of the iPhone to undertake a complete re-write of its smartphone operating system is proof that sitting on your laurels and being too conservative in this industry is far worse than taking the kind of risks that Ubuntu has with the Edge.

While hindsight is 20-20, had the then Research In Motion began development of BlackBerry 10 in 2008 when the iPhone and the Android OS app development trends begun in earnest, we might not all be talking now about how the technology crown jewel of Waterloo eventually gets broken apart and sold off a la Nortel Networks. 

Not every experiment in our industry results in a commercial success. Concepts are tried out, and sometimes they fail outright. But sometimes it takes multiple generations for a use case or an idea to take hold, and it’s not always the originator of that idea which hits pay dirt, either. XEROX and the GUI. GRID/Momenta and the tablet computer. Microsoft and the Pocket PC / Windows Mobile smartphones.

I could go on.

But we also cannot be quick to commit or propose infanticide every time a product does not meet initial expectations.

HP’s and Leo Apotheker’s euthanizing of the horribly mismanaged TouchPad and Palm set an awful (and shall I say it, criminal) precedent in establishing this failure-culture mindset, but today’s economic climate coupled with the company’s total incompetency regarding its mobile initiatives and other mega-financial and executive screw-ups made that experiment in mobile computing a fate accomplis.

Baxter-Reynolds would like you to believe that the Edge’s failure to achieve target funding is somehow linked to the notion that convergence devices have no use case. Just in case our resident mobile software consultant needs reminding, I’ve already knocked him on his derriere in a public debate that effectively debunked that line of thinking.

If there is to be any “Failure” in the Edge – and again, there was very little risk, and virtually no money lost here by Canoncal in undertaking a crowdsourcing strategy for monetizing this idea – is that the device as proposed was probably too ambitious initially and it was probably too expensive a concept to get traction.

But still, this was probably a very valuable lesson learned for Canonical. They need a more frugal version that does much of what the Edge did, just not encased in super-metal and sapphire crystal. They need the Toyota Prius V, not the Fisker. Which is precisely what Canonical wants to do next.

And should that version fail? It still doesn’t mean convergence is a bad idea. It just means that the right company needs to implement it, with the right combination of hardware, software and services features that end-users and businesses want. 

I for one, congratulate Canonical for one hell of a college try and for continuing to challenge and instill a sense of competition in the industry.

Do you see the Edge’s inability to achieve its target funding as a failure or a valuable lesson learned for Canonical and the mobile industry? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Ubuntu, Linux, Mobility, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Yes it does constitute a failure

    The world doesn't need another smartphone OS.
    Sir Name
    • No it doesn't constitute a failure!

      If I had the funds right now I would have backed it. I say this because I think computing will go down this path in the future and this is just the beginning.

      This project more than doubled the previous kick-starters contribution.
      • but why no big investors?

        Shutty is all talk. He hasn't been able to deliver on any of his grandiose plans, and I think big investors see this.

        UEdge is a good idea but the big investors are betting that Google, Apple, or MS will be the ones to deliver on this.
        • There WERE big investors

          Ever heard of Bloomberg? they put forward 80k to buy 100 of these things in the even it actually came to fruition
          • Hardly a big investment

            Why not invest more if you really think this will be successful? Not many people have confidence that shutty and team can deliver a product that people will want to buy.

            And I am sure that the big 3 have been researching this kind of device too.
          • Smartphone OS is irrelevant

            If a smartphone does what the user wants, it doesn't matter what OS it's running. Does the average car driver worry about whether his engine is diesel or petrol or even hybrid or how many cylinders it has? The important thing is that the car is reliable and gets from A to B with reasonable comfort, performance and economy. So I'd say there is room for another OS, especially as Android is simply Linux dressed up so many Android apps will need very little modification to work on a Linux based phone. Imagine if all the niche car manufacturers had seen the big car manufacturers and thought "No room for a new boy in this industry". We need entrpreneurs who think along different lines, who aren't satisfied with the status quo and who are prepared to take risks, like Toyota did when they decided to manufacture not only sewing machines, but cars too! Ditto Honda who only made motorbikes when I was young. I whole-heartedly endorse the theme of this article.
          • 80k is petty cash

            To a vc. A big investor would have basically underwritten the entire thing.
          • For a project like this, you want investors, not buyers

            You want somebody willing to commit millions of dollars, not just a few tens of thousands. The cost estimate to bring such a device to market I believe was pretty close simply because of the technologies and components involved. Hand building a few dozen prototypes is far more expensive than going into full manufacturing for the same number of units on a cost per unit basis as the same amount of money could assemble maybe 100x the units as hand built. These guys needed somebody like Icahn or Buffet to buy in, not people who have to scrimp just to commit $700.

            The concept itself, up to a point, may be a good one, but the execution of the concept needs to be well thought out. We can see that both Apple and Microsoft are working in that direction, but they're both working in different ways to find out the best way to make it work. We've also seen Motorola try at least once--to abysmal results.

            While Ubuntu is currently the most popular version of Linux and the easiest to use, the OS itself isn't ready for the general market; it's not ready for the average consumer who makes up more than 80% of the market today. An effort to push Ubuntu into the 'big time' with a spectacular new product without the OS itself ready for the task would almost certainly result in failure of the product and now more debt than the company could afford. When Ubuntu is completely Plug and Play--capable of being installed on any hardware without the need to manually download and install new drivers (automatic detection, download and install is acceptable)--then it may be ready for the Consumer. Remember; Consumers are not techies. They don't know anything about HOW a computer works, only that it works (or doesn't as the case may be). On installation of the OS, the computer should do everything for them while asking for very limited input from the operator such as a registration number and maybe location info (for the clock). That's the way Windows works and that's the way OS X works; each of these does all the rest automatically. Once Ubuntu gets there, then maybe this concept would work for them.
          • um, Linux is already there

            Linux is ready.
            the consumers are not, mainly due to perception and ignorance.
          • "When Ubuntu is completely Plug and Play--capable..."

            Linux works better on most hardware platforms out of the box than most other OSes. The drivers are built into the kernel itself so no driver downloads, installs or reboots are necessary in most cases. It just boots and works. There are exceptions, especially due to the latest hardware and lack of support by the manufacturers but the Linux community does a very good job of putting out drivers in a reasonable time frame.Bottom line is Linux supports more devices out of the box than any version of Windows or Mac. Just because there are a few examples of unsupported hardware doesn't change the fact the Linux supports more. My mom has a perfectly good laser printer she hasn't been able to use since she got a Win7 system. It works perfectly in Linux or WinXP though.
        • Ubuntu doesn't matter.

          Ubuntu doesn't matter, I'm just referring to smartphones eventually being the center to many a home computer.

          The thing I like about the Edge is that it is essentially an Ubuntu machine that you can take anywhere with a fully integrated Mobile Connection. I don't really care if it is Windows, Ubuntu, or OS X but, I would like that convenience.
          • For now, smartphones and tablets simply don't have everything it takes

            The reason desktops and laptops are still necessary is that graphics, processor, RAM (as compared to storage) and other capabilities require more than what can reasonably fit into a device that small. Yes, smartphones are significantly more powerful than even the desktops of 15 years ago, but that means that many desktop capabilities had to be simplified for them. Even now, you have a choice of desktop and portable computers that can, as some put it, "do real work" while the tablet and smartphone is still too limited. Trying to force a smartphone to perform desktop tasks WILL generate the same problems the early netbooks suffered, poor performance that is simply overshadowed by purpose-built desktops. Rather than docking the phone into a workstation as the primary processor, the system needs to take a different tack.

            Nesting the smartphone or tablet as a supplemental part of that workstation makes much more sense. Added display capability; additional i/o device; real-time telephony that isn't broken when you pick up the phone; these things can work and the technology is already available to do it--just not integrated yet. Making them a part of the computer, rather than the heart of the computer, is far more logical and sensible.
          • you are so wrong

            the concept of a desktop os on a phone is all about convergence and scalability.
            Instead all you apologists just want to hug the idevice way in supplemental devices.
            The first gen Asus Padfone should have had this OS on it. Then you would have one CPU that transforms into 3 form factors and the OS to take advantage of each form factor.
            We don't need gobs of CPU grunt to be able to use a desktop OS. If I could just bring a keyboard and mouse and be able to use libreoffice with multiple windows to cut & paste efficiently, I could leave the laptop behind in 99% of cases.
            Most people don't need more than what a phone CPU can crank thru. The limit is the OS and the UI. This is what Ubuntu is trying to solve.
      • I believe its a huge success as well

        Most people only see whats right in front of their eyes, they don't see the fact, that this was the goal all along, the crowd founding campaign started some time after the ubuntu mobile OS was announced and the talk regarding convergence started, this way Canonical, proved the manufactures that this idea is not just crazy, but is actually the future of mobile computing, two to three years ahead, and he prove this to everyone, the question was simple, if you make this concept a reality today, how many people would buy this today? and the answer was 18431.
        • The failure is trying to make a phone

          when they should have just made the OS and allow users to easily upgrade their Android to Ubuntu.
          What they need to do is provide a webpage where you choose from the list of devices and then from there it provides all the information and resources you need to transform your Android device to Ubuntu as easily as possible.
          Then they can have others expand on it, add devices, add forums, add modifications. a la xda developers style.
      • A good idea but a market failure.

        The Edge was a great premium design that relied on a group of people wanting everything for free. Not a good recipe for success.
    • Well, Sir

      I bet now that you have given us THE ANSWER we can all go to bed.
      I am not sure you understood what is the question though.
      BTW, I somehow thought the real answer was 42.
      • and the question is...

        what is 6 times 7?
        • That's not right...

          ...but Don't Panic
  • Great post Jason, and I agree

    "I for one, congratulate Canonical for one hell of a college try and for continuing to challenge and instill a sense of competition in the industry."

    Yes, me too.

    While ios supporters say "It can't be done" to every single thing that ios can't do, companies like Microsoft and Canonical are saying "Yes it can".

    The biggest shame is that Canonical didn't have the courage to risk their own money to see their dream through to release. Microsoft deserves kudos for that. Microsoft put their money where their mouth was.