Ubuntu Edge -- failure was inevitable

Ubuntu Edge -- failure was inevitable

Summary: The idea of raising $32 million through crowdfunding was always, how shall I put this, "quite a bold idea"...

TOPICS: Smartphones
Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 08.00.25
You don't get anywhere in this life not trying. Still, <SadTrombone.wav>

It may have broken records, but the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding has by the only important measure, failed. No one who put money in will be getting a shiny new device next year.

And I put some money in. I plumped down a cool $725 for a device.

All I have to do now is wait for IndieGoGo to issue a refund.


In the ZDNet Great Debate that Jason Perlow and I did about a month ago -- Mark Shuttleworth's vision: is the future one device I was just beaten having just 45 percent of the vote. My argument was that the Ubuntu Edge is an evolution of the PC, whereas what we are doing now both as an industry and as a society is evolving computing. Post-PC devices are looking to do things that PCs don't do very well. PCs aren't very good at being "always with you" because of their size and their dependence on having a keyboard and mouse.

The way I describe this is that PCs needs "specialised equipment" in order to be useful, but which I mean "a desk and a chair". Of course, you can use a laptop on your lap, but for that to work for you you need to be sitting or otherwise recumbent. A smartphone you can use anywhere. A tablet is midway between the two.

The Ubuntu Edge looks to solve a problem which doesn't seem to exist -- namely that what people want is a tiny, powerful PC that they carry around with them. Critically, in order for it to actually be useful as a PC, whenever you get to where you're going with it you need a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to already be there.

Why would you just not use a laptop? What's the advantage of not having a separate smartphone and laptop? I've been racking my brains on this for about a month and I can't get anywhere with it. All I get is downside.

Consider this. Let's imagine I'm writing this article on my Ubuntu Edge. I've got it docked onto a keyboard, mouse, and a monitor. Now the phone rings, so I pick up the phone. To do that, I have to undock the phone. On the call I need information on my computer. So I need to re-establish the dock to get to the point I was at before. OK, so maybe I can take the call using a headset. What if I like to walk around the office whilst on the phone? (Which I do, by the way.)

Similarly, I suspect that most readers pick up their smartphone by way of a distraction, or as a way of quickly checking or pinging something. All that disappears if you essentially don't have a smartphone because you've bamboozled it into being something else.

When docked the device isn't a good phone or smartphone -- I've compromised one feature that my smartphone is really good at, but my PC is really bad at. Having two devices is preferable here.


One thing that bothered me about the Ubuntu Edge from the beginning was that it's not obvious what you would call such a thing. On the ZDNet back channel that we use for internal discussions we tried to come up with a name. The best I could come up with was "pocket rocket". (Which, frankly, I quite liked but in the interest of disclosure, no one else did.)

But when a name isn't obvious, that's a good indicator that it's not resonating with a need.

"What's that thing you've invented, Karl?" "Oh, I call it an automobile." "Ah, you mean it's self-moving?" "Ja." -- and so on throughout history.

The name for the Ubuntu Edge we used at ZDNet and the name that Shuttleworth used was "convergence device". Convergence of what, though? Converging the form factors is meaningless. What's needed is useful convergence offunction.

The best example we have of practical convergence is the cameraphone. Another great example is turn-by-turn navigation on smartphone (i.e. converging a smartphone and a dedicated satnav device). Smushing devices together only makes sense if you end up with some sort of gestalt effect where the resulting thing ends up creating more value through applied hybridity than the individual parts. (Providing that value minus the compromises ends ups up positive.)

In my examples above the compromises cause hybridity to fail.

The Ubuntu Edge failure tells us two things. Firstly, hybridity and convergence are two different things. Hybridity is the process of mixing things together, regardless of the result. Convergence is what we call it when hybridity works, as per the cameraphone and turn-by-turn navigation software examples above.

Secondly -- but we all know this by now, surely -- you can't just create a product and hope it will sell. It has to create a need that resonates. Ubuntu Edge was always a solution looking for a problem.

If there's one stable point in our industry, one thing we can rely on not to change in this constantly changing industry it's this: Don't build things without knowing what the problem is.

But, let's just take a minute to applaud Shuttleworth who worked out how to fail, at scale, and essentially for free. He needed to sell 45,000-odd "convergence devices", and only sold about 17,500.

Like Elon Musk's hyperloop all he had was an idea that he put out there and got people to vote with their credit cards. He didn't have to put in millions, or face embarrassing write-downs. Just an idea, a PayPal account, a bit of charisma, a good video, a website someone else hosted -- that was all that was needed. And now he (and the rest of the world) knows the answer about whether we want a "convergence device".

Turns out that we don't. So anyway -- IndieGogo, where's my $725?

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topic: Smartphones

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  • Its not that people dont want it

    I think that there are plenty of people that would want it, the thing is that not enough people know who or what Ubuntu is... That is the problem, people are not willing to put down $725 for an Unknown company to build an Unknown device.
    • I have to disagree.

      I have to disagree with this. Not only did it also run android. Ubuntu has gained some incredible ground over the last 4-7 years. If you don't know what ubuntu *or* linux at this point >is. You have your head under a rock when it comes to technology.
      • Why the need for Android though?

        The edge is bundling Android on the phone to cover a weakness (apps) and that doesn't make for a good selling point about Ubuntu. I think it is cool, but I fall into the geek catagory and not average consumer.

        Imagine an average user walks into their local carrier store to buy a new phone. What is the selling point that the saleperson gives to convince the user that they would love the Edge instead of any of the other very recognizable phones next to it? What is going to convince them to buy the what might just be the most expensive phone at that size?

        I think the average user would get deer in headlights look as soon as the sales person starts explaining the strengths Ubuntu adds to the phone. Assuming the sales rep understands what Ubuntu offers at all.

        I can't imagine any of those conversations winning over an average user and they would most likely just get something they already understand and are familiar with.
        • Hmm... a lack of apps is a weakness of Ubuntu phone?

          There are over 100,000 desktop apps that can run on Ubuntu and it can run Android apps as well. Sounds like a strength to me.

          The sales rep doesn't have to explain the strengths of the Ubuntu phone in any great detail... One look at the UI will sell most people. Plug it into a 54" LCD TV and show them full blown applications running instead of cut back apps and that will sell even more.

          It doesn't even have to be that the person needs the capabilities just that the phone can do it is enough for many people.
          • Strengths to tech enthusiasts, not consumers

            The Edge is using Android to make up for its shortage of mobile apps. The only reason Android is bundled is to try to cover up the lack of mobile apps for Ubuntu.

            The average user doesn't want to dual boot operating systems so they can play android apps and then use the Ubuntu desktop on a 52 inch television. The average user isn't even going to understand what Ubuntu is, let alone that having access to its desktop on a tiny phone will be useful.

            The sales person is going to have to explain these advantages to an average user in a way that they will look at the Edge as a better purchasing choice than a Galaxy S4 or iPhone.

            At $750 it would most likely be the most expensive phone for a user to choose.

            Again I just don't see how this phone would gain traction in a market that is already very competitive.
          • The app ecosystem of all players increased AFTER they gained market share.

            Of course there won't be much apps at first when a mobile OS is launched. What developer would want to invest time for an unproven product? I don't think either iOS or Android had much apps to show at first. Still Ubuntu has one advantage as a newcomer - it already has a software ecosystem. Bringing that activity towards its phone OS shouldn't be difficult. I mean, the developers just had their platform expanded. It's up to Ubuntu to gain market and further spur its developer base.

            Most users also don't seem to have a need of installing 100+ apps, so yes these extra features like plugging to a 50 inch TV is a plus.

            The truth is, Android has well established market name and share, and Canonical wants to use that as one selling point for Ubuntu. And these advantages are not enough. Canonical still has to get smarter with its marketing. The device is not useless, far from it, but marketing is another thing.
      • If you don't know what ubuntu *or* linux at this point...

        Then you would fit right in with the vast majority of the consumer market. I know it must be surprising to the people on these forums but the rest of the consumer market that do not hang out on ZDnet forums to bash Linux have mostly never heard of it or if they have know next to nothing about it... Much the same as most of the people who hang out on ZDnet forums to bash Linux.
    • And yet...

      They put down easily over $2,000 for an iPhone. Sure, that's not what they pay up front, but that's what they pay with their contract subsidy. Oh, not only that, but when the next version comes out they dump another $2,000 on the next iteration even though their current one is still good.

      The only reasonable conclusion is that people are dumb.
      Jacob VanWagoner
      • Not all--not even most--iPhone users buy every new version

        Since the iPhone usually comes with a 2-year contract, most iPhone users keep their phones for the full two years--plus. Sure, I'll accept that some do, but some by definition does not mean most.

        That said, your own argument works against you as this "Edge" concept would be even more expensive up front compared to the iPhone, PLUS a service contract that would certainly not be any less expensive and likely more as any so-called 'all in one' device would tend to use FAR more bandwidth when not in range of Wi-Fi. So while you complain that iPhone users spend $2000 or more, an Edge user would probably reach $4000 to $6000 without even trying.
        • Pricing

          The edge was estimated to sell between $600-$725 upfront making it pretty comparable to the iphone 5s. the stronger screen itself is a pretty powerful selling point. Additionally just because it has the processing power of a laptop doesn't mean it would use the same amount of data as a laptop. It would mostly be used for streaming or downloading over wifi making all in all about the same price as the iphone.
      • American-centric view

        Let me first state, that I would never buy an Iphone. It is too restrictive for my needs. However I have been living outside the US for 7 years, in 3 different countries. In these countries people pay full price for the Iphone without contracts like they would do in the states.
    • People don't want it.

      Only Ubuntu geeks wanted it, which is why it failed. If anyone else in the world truly wanted Ubuntu, it wouldn't still be languishing at a fraction of 1% of the desktop market. Further, nobody except Ubuntu geeks would want a phone that dual boots two different operating systems. They need dual boot so they can have a real phone OS with a vast number of touch apps available for daily use, plus their separate tinker-toy OS to play with as a hobby. In my mind, dual boot on a phone makes me want it less, not more. My phone isn't my hobby. It's a tool.

      The vast majority of people want their phones to be simple to use. They just want them to do useful things with the least possible effort. Most people actually do know what Ubuntu is. That's precisely why they didn't support this funding campaign. Everyone who actually wanted Ubuntu on a phone pitched in but it still wasn't enough to make the goal. There are just too few who really want Ubuntu on a phone.

      The price probably contributed to the failure, but it wasn't entirely the issue, because high-end unlocked phones usually sit in that price range, anyway.

      Frankly, Android took the right approach. They threw away everything annoying about Linux and kept only the kernel. Then, they designed a decent phone OS to sit on top. Most people don't know or care that the Linux kernel is buried in there. The Android interface is what they like, not the Linux kernel.
      • My phone isn't my hobby. It's a tool.

        well said Bill!
  • Re: failure was inevitable....

    I dislike using the phrase "I told you so" but in his instance it was inevitable.

    As I have stated on countless occasions the smartphone market is entirely dominated by iOS and Android.
    • Stupid comments are inevitable

      The reason I pledged was because it ran Android.

      It was fairly obvious it would fail even those who apparently know very little about it like yourself. The only thing that really annoys me is all this boasting about how they raised record breaking amounts of money, they didn't, they failed and how this shows an appetite for Ubuntu phones, it doesn't, it shows an appetite for hardware innovation on Android with the bonus of desktop Linux throw in.
    • @5735guy

      "market is entirely dominated by iOS and Android."

      Dominating the market for how many years? 3? 4? It doesn't mean that they cannot be beaten. Symbian and Blackberry were dominating the market before. Now iOS and Android. Some one or two will take over at later part.
      • Re: Dominating the market....

        I have always been of the opinion that in the case of Blackberry nothing was wrong with the software but the phones were poorly designed. With the small keypad it is almost impossible to operate with large fingers. Essentially being non-PC it is was woman's phone.

        So for Blackberry the damage has been done. A Blackberry recovery is unlikely given the current market.

        Furthermore the premium iPhone is a tried and trusted design. It works therefore there is no need for change. Additionally iOS has a clean interface which is easy to navigate which will improve even further on iOS 7. So the iPhone will see off many Android devices which of course are made of plastic.

        Even the iPhone 5C will be no ordinary low end phone built using scratch-resistant LiquidMetal.

        But that is of course it is a product from Apple which ensures high quality.
        • Funny

          I am of the impression that Apple products are of particularly low quality.

          From "your holding it wrong" to "let's make a phone made out of glass on both sides" too "scratch-gate" where the decision was somehow made to make a phone out of something so weak I can wrap my sandwiches up in it, Apple has shown that they simply don't know how to make a good phone. Plastic is strong, flexible, and doesn't interfere with RF. It is the *right* material for the job.

          And don't get me started on the beige-to-silver color of their laptops with the dark chicklet keys and the ridiculous looking glowing Apple logo on the monitor. My. God. Are Apple laptops *ugly.*

          No, Apple products are, despite fanboy's assertions otherwise, anything but "high quality."
          x I'm tc
          • Apple makes money selling hardware

            Phones with twice the amount of glass surfaces to shatter and soft anodized aluminum that scratches easily result in phones that "wear" out more quickly. Thus enouraging users to upgrade to something new while also decreasing value and ability to resell the phone on the used market.

            Apple isn't stupid in this regard. As people are willing to pay top dollar for phones that look good, but wear out they would be stupid to change that formula. Form over function is working for selling iPhones and that is where Apple makes the majority of their revenues.
          • no clue

            Apple does not sell "form over function." They sell function, first and foremost, as number one. Their products are meant to solve customers' problems. That is Apple's focus. Good design and HW integration improves the ability of the product to do so. But the design itself is not what Apple sells. And they don't use soft anodized aluminum (you do realize that anodizing aluminum makes it harder, right? That is why it is anodized). And the glass covered phones were no more likely to break than any other phone. I have seen as many Samsung and Motorola cracked screens as I have iPhone cracked screens, and the 3 iPhone 4 and 4S devices we have had all have served well, with lots of use, and no cracks or major scratches. My iPhone 5, which rides caseless and screen protector less is in great condition. It has some wear on the edges, and a small blunt dent where it dropped on to some concrete from several feet up (actually was kind of accidentally "thrown" a few feet forwards and a few feet up onto my basement floor). No noticeable scratches on the glass. Very high quality build, and very functional. There is a reason why iOS is leading in enterprise adoption and that is the functionality of the device.