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

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth on how the Ubuntu Edge would have been a "time machine" offering a glimpse at the future of mobiles.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

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.

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