Canonical Edges closer to mobile-desktop OS convergence

The crowdfunded Ubuntu Edge, already over 10 percent of the way towards its target, is an experimental hardware platform on which Canonical will test new mobile technologies.
Written by Terry Relph-Knight, Contributor

Canonical recently announced an initiative to crowd-fund a new 'superphone' that will run Ubuntu as its operating system. The aim is to raise $32 million by 21 August. If the funding target is met, the new Edge device is scheduled for a limited release around April or May 2014.


The Edge is intended to help realise the long-term aims of the Ubuntu Touch project, which converges the operating systems and user interfaces for smartphones, tablets and desktop/laptop computers — in this case, by rethinking the hardware rather than just the software. According to Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth, the company is not intending to break into the general phone hardware market; instead, it's seeking to create a limited-edition, cutting-edge, experimental hardware platform on which to test new mobile technologies.


On 18 July a teaser with the words 'The line where two surfaces meet' and a 4-day countdown appeared on the Ubuntu website. Four days later the site displayed a follow-up to the previous teaser with the banner 'The critical point at which something begins …'. Now the site shows an image of a mobile phone, an Ubuntu/Edge logo and a button linking to the Ubuntu Edge page on the Indiegogo crowd-funding site. At the time of writing, the page shows that Canonical has already raised $3,726,715 — 11.6 percent of the target.


The Edge is slated to feature a highly scratch-resistant 4.5-inch sapphire crystal display with a resolution of 720 by 1,280 pixels, a CNC carved metal case, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, the fastest available multi-core processor, 8-megapixel (rear) and 2MP (front) cameras, and a silicon-anode Li-ion battery. It will support LTE, dual-band 802.11n wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC, and will be capable of switching seamlessly between Ubuntu and Android operating systems.

Image: Canonical

One of the problems of unifying an operating system and GUI running on a small, mobile, touchscreen with a desktop environment running on a large-format display is that touch operation is not very practical with a larger vertically-oriented display. Perhaps Ubuntu and the Edge may offer a solution in that touch gestures can still be performed on the smaller mobile screen while it's coupled with the larger desktop display.

Canonical has already unveiled Ubuntu for Phones at the Mobile World Congress in February, receiving a Best in Show award from CNET. The Edge project promises to complement this operating system with a hardware showcase.

Three views of Ubuntu for Phones, apparently running on a Galaxy Nexus smartphone. (Photo: Canonical)

Ubuntu for Phones, Ubuntu Phone and Ubuntu Touch

The pace of Ubuntu development at Canonical seems to generate a fog of terms that's sometimes a little hard to penetrate. At the end of October 2011, Mark Shuttleworth announced that by the time Ubuntu reached version 14.04 it would support smartphones, tablets, TVs and smart screens.

In January 2013 Canonical announced a version of Ubuntu designed to run on smartphones, which was referred to by commentators at the time as 'Ubuntu for Phones' and 'Ubuntu Phone OS'. Shuttleworth himself talks about 'Ubuntu for Phones' and 'Ubuntu Phone'. Then in February the Ubuntu Touch Developer Preview was released, and is still available for download and installation on Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4, 7 and 10 devices.

Essentially these terms all refer to one thing; a version of Ubuntu that runs on smartphones, that has a touch interface and that will operate as a full Ubuntu desktop when plugged into a docking station that's connected to a large-screen monitor.


The Ubuntu touch interface is based on the Ubuntu Unity desktop interface and optimises display area by auto-hiding different aspects of the user interface, which are revealed by touching each of the four edges of the display. For example, touching the left edge reveals applications pinned to a launcher bar, just as they appear in desktop Unity.

Touching the lower edge reveals application controls, while the right edge is used to rotate through applications when multitasking; the top edge provides access to system settings and shows status indicators somewhat like the top bar in the current Ubuntu desktop. When the phone is undocked the interface is configured to support the common smartphone operations; when the device is docked the UI reconfigures itself for desktop operation.

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