Is Ubuntu Edge a Big Gamble for Canonical?

Tuesday Jul 23rd 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Is the new limited edition phone cutting-edge or over the edge?

Ubuntu Edge is either an idea of genius or a desperate gamble by an increasingly out of touch executive team. Or perhaps it is both at once.

But no matter how you view this effort to promote innovation in mobile technology, it raises endless questions about Canonical's chances for success in the mobile field and Ubuntu's relationship with the larger free and open source software (FOSS) community.

Announced after seven days of a teaser on Ubuntu's front page, Ubuntu Edge shows no shortage of chutzpah. Despite the fact that Ubuntu and its commercial face Canonical have yet to establish themselves in the mobile market, the project is set on doing nothing less than setting the agenda for phones for the entire industry.

Moreover, it is attempting to do so by raising a record $32 million on Indiegogo and offering a limited edition phone. So far, the campaign seems a success. In the first day of the campaign, over 5,000 contributors reserved their phones with a donation of $600 or more, and $3.3 million was pledged. Assuming that Ubuntu has planned promotions to keep the interest strong over the next month, the campaign might very well reach its goal.

However, whether the fundraiser will succeed is only the first question that Ubuntu Edge invites.

Finding a Business Niche

Most of the questions about Ubuntu Edge have nothing to do with the phone itself. The intended technical specs include a metal case with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal screen and the ability to switch between Ubuntu and Android. Not just resolution, but brightness and color accuracy will be priorities for the screen, and the camera will be optimized for informal conditions with low light settings and fast response time.

It's currently vaporware, but as Ubuntu and Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth notes in the promotional video, not so revolutionary that it shouldn't be deliverable in ten months. As a result, anyone with any interest in technology at all is likely to drool just a little over the prospects.

However, one question that can be easily overlooked as everyone enthuses over the specs is why Ubuntu is attempting crowdsourcing at all.

Shuttleworth's video gives the reason. Over the last few months of developing a phone, he says, "We learned that new mobile phone technologies get proven in the lab, and then hit a production road block because manufacturers don't want to select a new technology for a device that's supposed to sell ten or fifty million units until they know it can be produced at this scale."

That sounds very much like Shuttleworth and many before him (including the developers of the KDE-based Vivaldi tablet) have learned a lesson: it's hard to break into a market where you have no experience and hard to get experience when you aren't already in the market.

In other words, for all the critical acclaim that Ubuntu has received for its phone development, the response of manufacturers may have been disappointing—perhaps even creating a bottleneck that prevents retailers from carrying Ubuntu products even if they want to.

From this perspective, Ubuntu Edge might be interpreted as an effort to establish a toe-hold in the phone market. Shuttleworth himself is disingenuous on the subject, insisting that "we're not trying to get into the phone business," then with the next breath suggesting that an annual limited edition phone might be forthcoming. Ubuntu Edge might be a boutique phone, selling only a few thousand each year, but it definitely sounds like a business venture.

At any rate, even if Ubuntu Edge is not meant to turn a profit, it might still be meant as an aid to other Canonical products. If Ubuntu can succeed with a limited edition, prestige phone—especially one that manages to set the technological standards for the entire industry—then Canonical's own phones might prove more acceptable to manufacturers and retailers. Like Google's first Android phones, Ubuntu Edge seems an effort to bypass the bottleneck that all new hardware designers face.

Or does anyone believe that Ubuntu Edge is a disinterested effort to save the phone industry from itself? In recent years, Canonical has only invested in FOSS projects that serve its own interests and in which it can assume a leadership role. Ubuntu Edge seems a similar move, except that it is aimed more obviously at the mobile market.

Another question that arises from the specs is that, if Ubuntu Edge is such a potential winner, why is it being crowdsourced? One possibility is that the publicity that would accompany a successful crowdsourcing campaign is as valuable as the funding.

However, considering that Canonical has gone nine years without turning a profit, perhaps Shuttleworth and other investors are unwilling to sink more money in further development, and investment or loans are out of the question because Canonical does not seem like a sound investment.

If so, then Ubuntu Edge is not just an end in itself, but a calculated gamble at a time when Canonical is running out of options, motivated by the same urgency that is behind the conversion of the dash into a sales mechanism for Canonical's partners, but less blatant.

A Gesture to the Community

By definition, crowdsourcing is an appeal to the community. For most FOSS projects, it's a natural fit, but less so for Ubuntu than most.

To say the least, Ubuntu's relationships with other FOSS projects has varied over the years. In Ubuntu's earliest days, it seemed content to be a project among projects, its focus on improving the desktop.

However, within a few years of its founding, Ubuntu showed signs of wanting to assume a leadership role, with Shuttleworth calling for coordinated release schedules and trying to push the pace of development.

When these efforts to assume leadership failed, Ubuntu and Canonical became more inward looking, developing their own desktop interface and starting their own projects rather than contributing to existing ones.

In recent years, strategic planning has been done increasingly by Canonical employees, causing conflict among the community-oriented Ubuntu volunteers, often over minor details that seemed to symbolize much larger issues. Shuttleworth has responded to complaints by dismissing complainers as elitists who don't want a version of Linux that anyone can use.

The extent to which these conflicts divided Ubuntu is uncertain. The most that can be said is the community includes extremely vocal members. However, when you consider this history, Ubuntu Edge's appeal to the community seems ironic, to say the least. It might even be seen as contemptuous, as if he is assuming that past differences have been forgotten, and the rebellious will now fall into line in order to help make Canonical and Ubuntu a success.

Whether complainers have been in the majority or simply the most vocal members of the community is impossible to determine with any accuracy. To all appearances, Shuttleworth appears to think that he continues to enjoy widespread support, or that technophiles will forgive for the sake of getting their hands on the next great innovations.

Judging from the first day, he could be right. However, those with long memories may suspect that Ubuntu Edge is another example of Shuttleworth attempting to assume a leadership role without being asked.

In much the same way, advocates of crowdsourcing may turn indignant at the idea that a commercial interest should attempt to reach its goals through a crowdsourcing site.

True, nothing in Indiegogo's terms of services prohibits a project like Ubuntu Edge—unlike KickStarter, Indiegogo is "available to anyone, anywhere, to raise money for anything." Yet as the blogged complaints about the Veronica Mars fundraiser shows, a widespread idea exists that crowdfunding should be for those who have no other way to fund a project, not for corporations.

For all Ubuntu Edge's cleverness, a backlash from both these perspectives seems likely. However, whether the backlash or the support is greater can only be guessed—not that Shuttleworth is likely to care about the backlash if the project succeeds.

Everything on a Single Throw

On the surface, Ubuntu Edge is the announcement of a new project. Yet its scope and its potential influence over Ubuntu's and Canonical's futures makes it far more.

Given its ambition, Ubuntu Edge's degree of success may become a referendum on Ubuntu itself. The project may determine whether Ubuntu becomes a player in the phone market that is at least critically respected, or a wannabe. Its success may determine whether the Ubuntu Touch line is a success and whether or not Canonical emerges as a leader.

Within the community, Ubuntu Edge's success could give Shuttleworth proof that he actually does enjoy majority support within Ubuntu. Success might even win back much of the respect that Ubuntu seems to have lost in the last couple of years.

It's going to be an interesting month as Ubuntu Edge raises funds, and an even more interesting year while we wait to see if it delivers as promised. Ubuntu Edge shows every signs of being one of those moves that is remembered as brilliant if it can be pulled off and as foolhardy if it fails.

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