Ubuntu Edge -- failure was inevitable

The idea of raising $32 million through crowdfunding was always, how shall I put this, "quite a bold idea"...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 08.00.25
You don't get anywhere in this life not trying. Still,

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.

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