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.
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.
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.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.