Whether you are an adherent to developing for or an evangelist for Apple, Google, Microsoft's or Canonical's mobile operating systems, I believe that the basic concepts Mark Shuttleworth is championing with his crowd-funded "Edge" smartphone are fundamentally universal to the future of computing.
Specifically, I am referring to the fact that Shuttleworth believes that the smartphone of the future will be the single device at the center of the end-user's universe. In summary, it will act as a "brain" for the tablet, laptop, and even desktop displays and TV sets, which will simply be just modular peripheral extensions of the handheld device.
What Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth proposes with his Ubuntu Edge is going even further than Steve Jobs' "Post-PC" concept, and into what I would call Computing Convergence, for lack of a better term.
In the future, smartphones will contain the CPU, storage, and wireless connectivity "core" of the user experience, running on a unified mobile operating system — and in the case of the "Edge" should it achieve its super-ambitious funding targets, Ubuntu running on the ARM architecture.
But it could very well and just as easily end up running on an operating system created by the usual suspects, even if the Edge never sees the light of day.
Instead of carrying three devices — a smartphone, tablet, and laptop, all of which would have discrete storage and memory, and would have to be independently managed — the user would just carry the smartphone and have attachable modules, such as a tablet screen, a large high-definition display, a detachable keyboard and wireless human interface devices that the smartphone would plug into or communicate with.
That, along with seamless integration with Cloud-based services, is where I see the future of personal computing truly heading.
Ultimately I beleive that our computing technology can and will get cheaper. I also think that the scenario of owning four separate devices today for four discrete computing scenarios is really only applicable to high-income individuals.
In reality we are talking only three form factor scenarios since the laptop has for the most part completely displaced the desktop. As I author this article, I am using a Lenovo X1 Carbon laptop in my home office connected to a HD monitor and a USB 3.0 hub as a dock for an external keyboard, mouse and other peripherals.
So the trend towards convergence and cannibalizing computing roles/scenarios has already proven itself in the industry. The question now is how much further convergence and platform unification going to go?
One thing that is almost certainly going to drive convergence is the financial means of people that are in the lower economic strata residing above what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation refers to as the "Bottom 2 billion", who face such incredible challenges for staying alive and need basic needs for food and water that computing is far from their main concern.
Above the abject poverty line in the third world, there are still billions of end-users in developing nations who can only pay so much for their computing. And within just the United States there is an entire growing segment of the population who already only own one device to meet their computing needs because they are largely income-constrained.
The Pew Research Center for examplerecently released results of a study regarding Internet use among Americans of Latino (Hispanic) heritage.
This study concluded that Latinos primarily depend on their mobile devices, rather than desktop and laptop computers when accessing the Internet. 76 percent, versus 60 percent of White Americans.
As we dig even further into the study's data, we learn that nearly half of Latino adults live in smartphone-only households, and that smartphone adoption can be correlated with age. More specifically those Latinos between ages of 18 to 29 are much more likely to own a smartphone than those ages 65 and older.
This study of course targeted only one demographic group in one large country, and I would expect we would see similar rates of mobile technology adoption in other large demographics in the US and in other countries that are forced to do more with less.
As they enter the workforce or want to do more with technology these very large groups of people will drive enhanced computing scenarios for their devices, such as connecting smartphones to desktop screens or televisions (like the way Shuttleworth proposes with the Ubuntu Edge) or even docked into a tablet/battery display combination, much like Motorola pioneered with the original Atrix, which I think was a product that had a great idea that was released before its time.
The demand for these enhanced scenarios for mobile devices will force the OEMs/ODMs to create devices that better conform to the scenarios users actually can and want to participate in regardless of how many form factors those companies want to actually sell. You can't shove new scenarios down users' throats, the roles are reversed.
It's the users that determine, along with their dollars, what gets produced. The end-user is the disrupting force. Not Apple, not Microsoft, not Google, or any other company trying to enter these well-established mobile application and device ecosystems, Canonical's Ubuntu included.
Now all of that being said, Microsoft and Google are well positioned to introduce devices to market with either their own OEM branding in conjunction with ODMs or those released in ODM labeling such as Samsung's.
Based on what we've been hearing about in the news, Apple is heavily investing in semiconductor technology and will own more and more of their own production capacity and component designs. All signs are that some form of ARM-based platform convergence from Cupertino will occur sometime in the future. When that occurs it is hard to say.
I think we are still in the early stages of convergence, but it is going to become more and more important as the back-end services become richer and shift computational power and business logic from the device to the Cloud.
The tipping point will come sooner than we will all think, and there will be reactionary measures taken by some device manufacturers to compensate for this whereas others will have been planning and preparing for it for quite some time.
The Ubuntu Edge has some very specific challenges, although I personally would like to see them achieve their full $32M crowd-sourced funding target because it would be a massive wake-up call for the entire industry. It would accelerate discussion of convergence and it would cease to become a "should we" issue and would become a "how do we" issue.
I cannot truly speak for what is going to happen with the Edge and I think we have to view that product as a test-bed for people willing to be early cutting-edge early adopters and not regular end-users that consume these sorts of products in very high volumes.
Based on the specifications the Edge's hardware looks impressive. If it delivers a rich Ubuntu desktop like that exists for regular Ubuntu x86 systems today while being able to seamlessly merge Android applications into that environment onto that desktop as it is promised, then I think their admittedly small but passionate group of end-users and developers will be happy with it.
However, I do not believe this is a mass-market device and even Canonical acknowledges this is more of a proof-of-concept for pioneering types that want a very high-end device, not unlike how the Tesla is for people who want to own a luxury electric car.
The Tesla is not a mass-market electric car, and, but it has managed to create a nice niche for itself despite the huge challenges the rest of its industry has faced. I see the Edge and Ubuntu's mobile convergence OS as the same kind of thing.
The ultimate and stated objective of Ubuntu's device OS is to get carriers and device manufacturers to take lessons learned from the Edge and make commodity hardware solutions for the every-man, not $700 ultra-convergence phones.
Regardless of whether the Ubuntu Edge succeeds or not I am convinced that convergence has to occur based on what the user actually wants to do with their devices and limited financial resources.
But I think the greatest potential for a device like this is not in the host operating system and the locally-running apps, but how well it integrates with cloud-based services.
Let's talk about the potential for computing convergence in the enterprise.
So, I think in this case Shuttleworth is onto something. Public and Private Cloud-based desktop hosting has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar industry.
If enterprises can replace the majority of their PCs with take-it-with-you inexpensive endpoints like a smartphone, tablet or two-in-one that can be used to connect to larger screens as well as access their mission critical applications, be it from on-premises office locations or even remotely then we have true industry disruption. And mature Cloud computing.
Yes, there will be an increased amount of device management from this. But Microsoft, Citrix and others are building the tools to simplify large scale device management using policies and automation, and I think the benefits far outweigh any perceived trade-offs.
That being said, the question has been posed if even the technological issues can be overcome with convergence, will user acceptance and behavioral patterns of using their existing computing scenarios be a barrier to convergence?
So, smartphone OSes and tablet OSes and even laptops/desktops can be designed to have a consistent user experience. Microsoft is doing this now by providing the overall Windows experience across device categories with the Modern Windows UI and that remains integral to the company's strategy going forward.
This is also exactly what Ubuntu is doing by having a unified user interface for multiple form factors and takes this a step further by proposing a single binary application format. Google is also doing this but has no true desktop aspirations yet, and Chrome OS remains separate from Android, at least for now.
While Apple has a unified application binary format for iPhone and iPad, not all their developers have embraced this yet in their applications and the Mac remains having its own separate OS, despite clear indications that convergence is pending, if you've been reading the tea leaves and watching just how many UI elements and apps are being backported from iOS to Mac OS X.
So, "Will it work" from a purely technical perspective has much to do with how well each of these companies can make the UX seamless across their platforms and how easy it is for developers to write applications that perform equally well among these use case scenarios.
Changing fundamental user behavior, on the other hand, is much more difficult to do than unifying device experiences. But as I said there are cost drivers in play that are compelling users to buy less devices or consolidate their usage of computing devices. So it's not really a case of "Can it work" but precisely, "How do we make it work."
So where does the Cloud come into play in all of this?
Without cloud-based services, be it Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon's, or any number of other services offered by 3rd-parties that plug into those ecosystems, we would not be enjoying our devices the same way as we do today. What Shuttleworth proposes cannot exist without the Cloud and I think he and Canonical fully realizes that this is the case.
All of this being said, where the differentiation among the players I mentioned above is going to occurWhoever offers the best services ultimately will attract the most attention from users and spawn the creation of 3rd-party applications and services enabling the consolidated/converged use-case scenarios.
Shuttleworth has posted a few videos online in which he talks about how he envisions how users will experience the future of Ubuntu Tablet/Mobile OS and the Ubuntu Edge Smartphone.
Of course, what Shuttleworth does not talk about in these videos describing the benefits of such platform unification or convergence is the back-end public and private cloud infrastructure that this mobile OS would need to leverage in order to run the most demanding sorts of applications, via web APIs and desktop as a service (DaaS).
However, this is implied. A mobile operating system cannot run enterprise application workloads, and despite a trend towards mobile apps, our desktop applications will be with us for a very long time even if the PC and x86 itself becomes an endangered species.
This is something that my critics have not been able to address even with the Post-PC and PC death hypotheses that they are all so fond of.
Over the years, I have talked at length about Cloud-based remote computing, and what shape and form the endpoint devices might have. I've used the term "The Screen" to refer to a SoC-based thin client that would be a hybrid of localized processing of mobile apps in combination with desktop apps running remotely in the datacenter.
I have also written some highly speculative things aboutThe reality is that many of things are closer to reality than I thought, whereas other things are still much further away.
Today, "The Screen" exists as discrete computing devices such as smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes (Apple TV, etc) and even thin clients like Chromebooks.
However, in the future, perhaps some five or ten years from now, that distinction between form factors may not even exist, because end-users all over the world with constrained financial means will drive new computing scenarios which that will force the device manufacturers as well as the software platform creators to adapt to this new modality and a Cloud-based paradigm shift away from localized processing.
For Shuttleworth's vision to become a reality, you need platform unification and convergence. In other words, the smartphone, tablet and desktop OS need to become the same operating system, the same developer target and ultimately, the same device.
Clearly, this is a natural evolution from what Canonical is doing with Ubuntu, what Microsoft is doing with Windows, what Google is doing with Android and Chrome, and even what Apple is doing with iOS and Mac OS X.
Will Computing Convergence issue the age of "One Device?" Talk Back and Let Me Know.