Crazy, risky, bold: The Ubuntu Edge embarks on a new phone frontier

23rd Jul 2013 | 00:06

Crazy, risky, bold: The Ubuntu Edge embarks on a new phone frontier

Mark Shuttleworth is willing to take some risks

Months before Mark Shuttleworth took off for space, he had an idea that made some of the more seasoned pros around him slightly uneasy.

"I was sitting down with my counterparts in Star City [Russia] and we were talking about laptops," Shuttleworth recalled during an interview with TechRadar this afternoon.

"The laptops that were certified to fly on the Space Station, they were P166s, and this was 2001. I said, 'I think we can fly the latest laptops.'"

The Canonical founder's suggestion was met with hesitation - after all, careers are on the line for decisions that send anything into orbit - but after testing Shuttleworth was permitted to bring three of the then-latest laptops to the ISS.

"For me, it was mission critical that I take these machines into space, but I was in a position to take more risk. We ended up with three great laptops that became the next certified model of laptops on the Space Station.

"There's nothing dumb about NASA, but by bringing a different perspective to risk and experimentation, it moves things forward faster."

Risk rewards

Shuttleworth offered this space travel anecdote as an analogy for the Ubuntu Edge, a "superphone" Canonical announced today along with a $32 million (about £20.8m, AU$34.5m) Indiegogo campaign.

The phone industry, he said, has a low risk appetite when it comes to products: Like sending an unfamiliar machine into space, putting a more experimental handset on the market can have shattering consequences for the people involved.

Ubuntu Edge

"[The Edge] is a concept car that people can drive off the lot," Shuttleworth said, turning to another analogy. "It's a test of the future, because the phone industry really can't do this. Not because it's not smart enough or doesn't have the resources, but the mechanism is such that they can't do it."

In the hours since it was announced, the vibe as been "very positive" for the the campaign and the phone that will dual boot both the Ubuntu for smartphones OS and Android.

"I think we've even beat out the royal baby on Twitter - though we'll be in labor for 30 days."

Canonical has a month to reach the multimillion dollar amount needed to get the Edge into users' hands. As of 4:10 p.m. PT Monday, the ticker was at $2,012,912.

"It's crazy and bold, but that's what it takes to bring a new device to market," Shuttleworth said of the figure. "We're really finding a new way to get phones to enthusiasts, and I'm really excited about that."

Living on the Edge

As appealing as its specs are, the Edge isn't meant to be a mass market device. It's aimed at enthusiasts, early adopters and enterprises, those that are willing to take the risk in "cracking those next generations," while also fronting $830 (about £540, AU$897) for a phone that won't be ready until May 2014.

Canonical needs about 40,000 of these kind of people to put their money where their interest is. If it doesn't reach its goal, than the Edge won't get made.

Though the specs aren't finalized, the Edge is leaning towards housing 4GB of RAM, a multi-core processor and 128GB of storage - resources it can call on when plugging into a PC.

Phone to computer

"The point of the Edge is to break new ground - in this round we really want to stretch the RAM and storage of the device. We're trying to cross that chasm between phone and PC and be the superphone."

"This round" is a key phrase - if the Indiegogo experiment works, Shuttleworth said Ubuntu campaigns might become a regular occurance.

"In the second generation, we could invite companies that have interesting sensors or capabilities that they've tried in the lab but not in the field. We could have this happen on an 18 month or so clip to chip away at the leading edge of possibility," he effused.

Shuttleford said Canonical has held off selecting the Edge's silicon because "we want to have a very good read on what the next-gen will be. We want to see real world benchmarks and give our backers a say in that sort of macro decision."

The phone is a grass roots effort in the same vein as Ubuntu itself, and though it can be hard to discern the right path among thousands of voices, Shuttleford seems a stalwart of the crowdfunding and crowdsourcing process.

And while it may look like an outlier or even a rebel, from its specs to its funding, he called the Edge "non-threatening" to phone makers. Canonical might even end up releasing the device under another brand's name, if it ends up working with a design manufacturer and "if that's what our backers want."

Ubuntu UI

Ubuntu unfolds

Edge is grabbing the headlines today, but Canonical is plotting putting Ubuntu on four other devices - two mid-range and two high-end - for release next year. The devices will be for the mass market, meaning more conservative specifications, and conversations with potential phone maker partners are already underway.

The platform is still young, but Shuttleworth said it will be "interesting to see how [Ubuntu] translates" as computing evolves to areas like augmented reality and as it becomes "a platform for framing what's possible." When asked if he could see Ubuntu powering wearable tech, he offered a hearty "sure."

The future, from the founder's perspective, is appropriately wide open. But the company has the next 30 days to worry about first.

"If it succeeds, it's fantastic, and then it will be a lot of work," Shuttleworth said of the Indiegogo campaign. "If it doesn't work, I hope that what we'll have done is raise awareness of the crowdfunding mechanism to drive innovation.

"If [the Edge] is greenlighted, we'll tap into a much bigger brain trust than myself or the others at Canonical. We'll have broken the speed of sound, broken out of the atmosphere, but won't yet be in orbit."

Ubuntu Canonical Mark Shuttleworth smartphone Ubuntu Edge Indiegogo campaign Android
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