Mobility

Ubuntu Edge: Three big takeaways on the cross-over Android device

The Ubuntu Edge wants to break through barriers and smash records. We boil down the three key takeaways.

Ubuntu Edge desktop software
 Image: Canonical Ltd.

This could be the mobile device that finally has enough power and moxy to replace a PC, because it can act just like one.

With the Ubuntu Edge, that’s exactly what Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth would like you to believe. Announced on Monday, the Ubuntu Edge is a high-powered Android smartphone that will also dock and provide a full desktop experience using Ubuntu. It runs bleeding edge hardware squarely aimed at enthusiasts and it has launched one of the world’s largest crowdfunding campaigns to date in order to make it happen.

Whether Shuttleworth is right or wrong, it’s impossible to ignore the ambitiousness of what Ubuntu is trying to pull off. And, there’s a possibility that it could empower early adopters and power users to have a bigger voice in product development in the tech industry.

Here are my three big takeaways from Shuttleworth’s announcement about the Ubuntu Edge:

1. It goes deep on phone and PC convergence

The Ubuntu Edge wants to be the first phone that can dock and serve as a full PC replacement and Shuttleworth believes that the hardware is now capable enough to handle it and that Ubuntu can do the hardware/software integration to succeed where others have failed.

Motorola famously tried this with the Atrix and its Webtop software, but it was using an 800MHz processor (second-gen had 1.5GHz), 1GB of RAM and 48GB of storage (max). Webtop’s desktop experience was mostly limited to a Firefox browser. As a result of these two factors, the overall desktop experience on the Motorola device was sluggish and limited.

The Ubuntu Edge is throwing a lot more hardware at solving this problem, with a 2.4 GHz quad-core CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. These are laptop-quality specs in a smartphone, and that makes it a lot more likely that this will run like a true PC.

But, where Ubuntu really thinks it can drive a breakthrough is in the integration between the phone and desktop environments. It’s been working on this issue since last year when it announced Ubuntu for Android and in its video demos this week it showed working prototypes running the full Ubuntu experience from a testing device (a Nexus 4 running Ubuntu for Android). The Ubuntu Edge is going to pack a lot more power than the Nexus 4, but it already looks capable enough to match a moderate PC. Ubuntu is doing little things like running Android apps from the desktop, sharing contacts and text messages between phone and desktop, sharing social media credentials between the two environments, and retaining open web pages between phone and desktop. The Ubuntu Edge will offer the option of booting into the Ubuntu Phone OS instead of Android, but with all of the momentum behind Android right now I expect that most Ubuntu Edge buyers will want to run Android on the phone side.

Ubuntu is also targeting these devices to businesses. With thin clients and virtual desktops finally gaining momentum in the enterprise, the Ubuntu Edge is being groomed to connect to various systems as a thin client device. In fact, there are even demos of it smoothly running Microsoft Office over the network in a thin client environment.

"These devices could substitute perfectly for thin clients,” Shuttleworth said. “In fact, they are much more capable than most of today's thin clients."

Overall, the big question still hanging out there will be whether the device can deliver all day battery life as a phone while packing all of that power it needs to act like a grown-up computer.

Ubuntu and Android
 Image: Canonical Ltd.

2. It wants to connect enthusiasts with future technologies

There has been a lot of teeth gnashing in the tech industry lately about smartphones becoming commoditized and innovation waning. Shuttleworth blames that on the fact that the phone industry is a brutal business that relies on hit devices that can sell tens of millions of units. As a result, phone makers have become very conservative about integrating cutting edge technologies that they can’t get at low cost and massive scale.

Meanwhile, Shuttleworth argues that there are amazing phone innovations that he believes tech enthusiasts would love to experience now rather than having to wait until they are ready for mass production.

"There's a pent up enthusiasm for what's possible in mobile," he said.

So, what Ubuntu is proposing is a low-volume smartphone filled with bleeding edge components and crowdfunded by technology enthusiasts and professionals. That’s why Ubuntu Edge is packed with laptop-level power, a scratchless sapphire crystal screen (only diamond is a harder substance), dual global LTE antennas, and the most effective camera and 4.5-in display that Ubuntu can gets its hands on in the months ahead. The Ubuntu Edge will also feature a main body that is made out of a single piece of textured metal.

Shuttleworth offered up an analogy for what Ubuntu is trying to accomplish:

"In the motor car industry we have Formula One to test new technology but the mobile industry has nothing like that. There's no premium segment for expert drivers. It's like everyone is driving mass-produced sedans. We don't have a consumer test-bed for cutting edge technologies but we do have a new mechanism for driving innovation: crowd-funding. Since the Ubuntu vision of convergence for the phone and the PC will push the limits of mobile computing and since we're working with industry already and since millions of you are passionate about the latest and greatest phone technology -- software and hardware -- we're in a perfect position together to change the way innovation comes to the mobile industry."

The idea is that if Ubuntu can crowdfund some of these advances into an exclusive small-run device that it could also force the larger manufacturers to innovate more quickly in adopting new technologies. Ubuntu doesn’t sound like it actually wants to get into the phone business. It said that it has an experienced contract manufacturer who is producing the Ubuntu Edge.

The question is whether there’s enough cutting edge stuff in the Ubuntu Edge to get technophiles to pay the equivalent of full retail price for a high-end smartphone. There’s also the issue of whether some mainstream phone makers might be able to pre-empt the Ubuntu Edge by pre-announcing or even implementing some of its best features by the time it actually comes to market in 2014.

Ubuntu Edge flyout
 Image: Canonical Ltd.

3. It wants to smash crowd-funding records (or die trying)

If the Ubuntu Edge is to become a reality, it will have to raise US$32 million in one month’s time.

"To make it happen, we'll have to smash every record in crowd-funding history,” said Shuttleworth. “It's a crazy, beautiful idea."

Shuttleworth and team officially launched this as a crowdfunding project on Indiegogo right after the press event announcing the Ubuntu Edge. It is already off to a fast start. In less than five hours, the project had cleared its first $1 million. Within 8 hours, it passed $2 million.

Part of the early momentum is due to a special that is running for the first 24 hours. Up until 11:00am Eastern Time on Tuesday (July 23), up to 5000 supporters could pledge a discounted rate of US$600 in order to get an Ubuntu Edge at launch. Those first 5000 slots were filled within the first 12 hours. As a result, it now takes the standard US$830 pledge to get an Ubuntu Edge at launch. That US$600-$800 is consistent with the retail price of high end smartphones like the iPhone and the Galaxy S. However, in the case of the Ubuntu Edge, that price is likely the cost of the device itself. I expect that Shuttleworth and team are making very little, if any, profit on the sales of the Edge.

In terms of who should consider supporting the Ubuntu Edge project, Shuttleworth summed up:

"This project is just for us, the real enthusiasts. That's why a crowd funding approach is perfect. If there are enough of us interested in pushing the limits of the phone, then it will happen. The Ubuntu Edge will be a limited edition production run available only to supporters of this campaign. If it works well, we might even do it annually, just to keep ahead of the curve. If you're like us, you're a little impatient to experience the future. You like to try every new device just to see how they're improving. With this project, for the first time, we'll have the ability to try the most exciting technologies long before everyone else."

The economics work, in this case because "it's tens of thousands of devices rather than tens of millions," Shuttleworth remarked. The enthusiasts who support the project share some of the risk and get the opportunity to show Ubuntu whether or not there is a true market opportunity for the product before the team invests resources in it.

While it’s off to a fast start, Ubuntu Edge will have to sustain its momentum over the next month to get to $32 million, and that’s a tall order. Even Shuttleworth sounded as if he might be surprised and amazed if they made it. However, he made it clear that it was $32 million or bust. If the project does not meet its funding goal then it will not go forward on partial funding, he said.

TechRepublic has made its Indiegogo contribution to the project in order to receive an Ubuntu Edge device. So, if it gets fully funded, we will have a device in our hands and will thoroughly test and write about it.

Also read

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

16 comments
Lightning Joe
Lightning Joe

And let's NOT forget, that to really blend the two techs, the phone functions must ALWAYS be available; on no more notice than it takes to answer or dial a call.

A "phone" that requires a reboot, in order to FUNCTION as phone, is just too far away, and takes too much trouble and time from the user, to really serve its base function.

If the user requires ANOTHER phone, to really be available, then this two-for-one tech is only vaporware.

programit
programit

My biggest concern is privacy and security with ubuntus questionable history with integrate spyware, logging and tracking?  How far will they go for the mighty dollar?

Also ubuntu is known for dropping and changing features at will, with little to no regard for the end user, so besides being a novelty item, is probably not a device business or serious users could take serious!

jacosmitza
jacosmitza

I wish I had money to fund as well, this is awesome tech!!!

ralf.neurohr
ralf.neurohr

Dear Mr. Hiner, Sir,

is this a complete sentence (in English):  "With the Ubuntu Edge, that’s exactly what Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth would like you to believe."?

sorry for being a native German speaker

Ralf

kpdriscoll
kpdriscoll

I loved the idea when I bought into it with Motorola's Droid RAZR MAXX and Lapdock 500.  I worked remotely through SSH & RDP.  I worked proficiently through Google Apps. I thought Google buying out Motorola would accelerate and extend the platform, but instead they killed it off.  I hope Shuttleworth has the perseverance to see it through.

djbeall@yahoo.com
djbeall@yahoo.com

I love this ambitious idea.  Ubutu is a great OS and I believe they can pull this off better than anyone...

Todd Adams
Todd Adams

I doubt seriously this device costs $600-$800 to build, unless its labor for hand crafting each one.  I recognize a sapphire screen will cost more.  Remove the typical 8GB of Flash and replace with 128GB SSD and you only have a $60 upcharge at the wholesale level (you can buy a 128GB SSD for $75)   

The SSD and the screen are the only two expensive, new components.  All new phones have quad core APUs and the S4 and Iphone 5 both cost out between $200 and $250.  I doubt seriously if this device costs any more than $350 to build.

filker0
filker0

A CPU with multiple high performance (and high power) cores and a few low power (and lower performance) cores would be a good fit for this.  When running on battery power, some or all of the higher power cores could be turned off when demand allows it.  Several ARM CPU flavors seem to be taking this approach and I've seen some movement toward this in other embedded applications.

I won't venture a prediction on the Ubuntu Edge, though I am interested in seeing how it works out.

Rick-J
Rick-J

What's the point? The industry keeps trying to foist these all in one device ideas on us, and quite sensibly no one bites. OK its technically clever but is it useful? I don't want to tie up my phone in order to work at my desk, nor do I want just one gadget which if it breaks or gets lost means I have nothing to work with. It's unlikely to save money because the desktop docks are always stupidly expensive, and less portable than something like a Chromebook. Your data should never be in just one place - if you were going to use one of these you'd be mad not to have continuous cloud backup, and once your data's accessible from anywhere then you use any device to work with it. The phone is just one interface, a Chrome-OS style desktop or laptop another. Ubuntu would be better putting their effort into seamless DATA between Ubuntu desktop/notebook, Ubuntu phone, & Android phone, etc. Many devices, one data store to rule them all. :-)

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

I was half considering one of these till I saw that it is GSM only.   Since the best network with the most coverage in the USA is a CDMA, I'm going to pass.

BobManGM
BobManGM

I'm sorry...but I have to say "meh".  Most people simply don't care and this "power user" just doesn't see the point.  Maybe I'm short sighted...enlighten me, please.  But I see this dying on the vine.

mobilesite
mobilesite

I am not sure whether this news will affect the minds of Android application development professionals. They are already brainy and genius. 

bmerc
bmerc

@Todd Adams

 First of all, no, the iPhone 5 does not cost $200. Try $650 for the 16 gig model. Don't believe me, look on Apple's site for yourself.

http://store.apple.com/us/buy/home/shop_iphone/family/iphone5

There's a $200 option, but that's only when you sign a contract with a carrier, and the real cost of the phone is built into the contract rate.

I defy you to build yourself a new cell phone from scratch for less than $1000. Creating new custom hardware is not free, it requires a significant investment up front. As with every other new product, the initial release will be more expensive, and if demand is sufficient, the price will fall over time. 

When you make millions of a thing, you can take advantage of mass production. The initial design and prototype will probably cost millions. So yeah, $800 each is perfectly reasonable.


bmerc
bmerc

@Rick-J 

I suspect you are not the target market for this device. 

bmerc
bmerc

@Al_nyc It's GSM because it's an independent project. If they went with CDMA,each phone would have to be configured for one and only one carrier. Obviously that's impossible with a project like this.

GSM means it can be used with multiple carriers in all of the biggest markets in the world.Obviously that makes a lot more sense than tying it to one single carrier in one country.



333239
333239

@bmerc @Rick-J

I agree with Rick. Just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done.

The arguments for seem to be having all your data in one place and saving money on hardware.

With cloud storage, centralised storage accessible from all devices is now the norm anyway.

I suspect that the cost of these devices with their specialised docks and integrated desktop hardware will always be more than the cost of a cheap handset and a cheap desktop system combined. 

With the inevitable compromises associated with having one device do two different things you will have a worse phone and a worse desktop experience and it will cost you more.  For this reason I'm out.