Ubuntu Edge: What it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important

There’s been a lot of talk about the Ubuntu Edge, and our associated Indiegogo campaign to fund it. There has been a lot of positive coverage on news sites, social media, Reddit and even one television interview. But there have also been a lot of questions about why we’re doing this, and why we’ve chosen a crowd-funding campaign to do it. Since I’ve seen so many of the same questions being asked by so many people, I wanted to take the time to try and explain things a little bit better.

What it isn’t

In order to fully understand and appreciate what the campaign is about, it might be easiest to first explain fully what it isn’t.  Once we’ve done away with these misconceptions, it should become more clear why it is what it is, and finally why that is important.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, this is not a charity.  We have provided a $20 perk for people who want to see this campaign succeed but don’t have the means or desire to purchase one of the Ubuntu Edge devices.  But this is primarily a way for people to get very high-end hardware by paying for it’s creation.  I don’t have the exact numbers, but just going by what we’ve seen of the perks claimed, people have been contributing at levels that would get them a phone more than 3.5 times more often than the much less expensive founder’s perk. This tells me that people aren’t supporting this campaign because they think it’s a good cause, or because they like what Canonical is doing, by and large they are supporting this campaign because they want an Ubuntu Edge in return.

Secondly, and this is one that has been asked a lot, this is not a financial investment.  OEMs aren’t stupid, venture capitalists aren’t stupid, and Mark Shuttleworth isn’t stupid.  If there was money to be made in building bleeding-edge phones then we would have half a dozen to choose from at our local store.  The margins on hardware sales is much lower than many people realize, and without a high rate of profits available, only a very low level of risk can be assumed.  That’s the main reason nobody else has built a phone like the Ubuntu Edge, and why nobody is going to anytime soon if we were to try and do it using capital investments.  The Ubuntu Edge doesn’t need to prove that people want scratch-proof screens or high-capacity batteries, it doesn’t need to prove that consumers like more power and more storage, it needs to prove that those technologies are ready to be produced in high volumes without supply or manufacturing problems.  It doesn’t need to prove that people want a desktop available at home or work, but it does need to prove that the hardware and software are capable now of providing that convergence in a satisfactory way that previous attempts couldn’t.

Finally, it’s not a way of making money for Canonical or a last-ditch effort for keeping either Ubuntu or Ubuntu Touch alive.  Whether this campaign succeeds or fails, we will continue to work with OEMs to bring multiple consumer phones to market, most likely using slightly better hardware than the current generation of smart phones, where there is little risk involved on the hardware side.  But in order for Ubuntu to provide the kind of convergence and one-device experience that we envision, we needed skip the slow, safe evolution of hardware and spark the flames on a whole new class of phone.  So while we work on getting Ubuntu phones to market with our partners, the Ubuntu Edge will provide the seeds for the suppliers and manufacturers that those partners use, so they will be ready to build their new generation of superphones when the time comes.

What it is

Now that I’ve gone over what this campaign isn’t, let talk about what it is.  I spent some time over this weekend thinking about how to accurately describe it without going deep into the economics or politics of it, trying to find parallels in other industries (like Mark’s F-1 analogy) that wouldn’t fall apart when going into the specifics of either.  In the end, I decided that the thing this campaign resembles the most is an adventure.

Now that’s vague, I know, so let me give some more concrete examples.  I liked Mark’s F-1 analogy, but when looking into how F-1 actually operates these days it really doesn’t quite fit.  Instead it’s more like X-Prize competition that put the first private manned vehicle into space.  Even though there was a monetary prize in that competition, it was only a tiny fraction of the money that went into building any of the entrants.  The reason anybody participated was to push the bounds of technology and to try and birth a new industry, one where they would stand to benefit more in the long run than any possible profits they could have made by sticking with the status quo.

But those initiatives were largely funded by wealthy individuals, who probably didn’t expect to get much in return.  So for a more fitting analogy we need to go a bit further back in time, to expeditions into the Americas and Africa, some of which were funded only by those who were to participate in them, and who could expect little more than the thrill of participating.  While not pushing the limits of technology, these adventurers would certainly push the bounds of knowledge to new levels, and would fundamentally change the way the world looked.

[Update] It has been pointed out in the comments that many of these expeditions had either deplorable intents or disasterous consequences for the native people.  While this was not at all what I had in mind, I understand that my knowledge of those histories is largely influenced by my own ancestry.  A better example, as also pointed out in the comments, would be the expeditions to both the north and south poles, or the scaling of Everest.

Why it’s important

Now both of these are extreme examples, and certainly far outshine what we’re trying to do with the Ubuntu Edge.  It is just a computer after all.  But on a smaller scale the reasons and motivations are the same, there is a desire to push the limits that currently confine us.  And that’s certainly not a feeling that’s limited to Canonical, over 15,000 people have contributed to the campaign in one way or another, and around 10,000 have committed to sharing the adventure with us from the beginning by claiming their own phone.  These aren’t wealthy investors looking to become more wealthy, nor is it good-hearted folks who are giving us money just to be nice, these are thousands of people who want go on the adventure because it’s exciting, because it’s audacious, and because it gives them the future they want to see made.

So there it is, we’re embarking on an adventure, and we want you to come with us.  If the Ubuntu Edge makes you excited for the future of computing, if you’re eager to see that future technology years before it becomes common place, if you want be on of the ones cutting new trails rather than following those well-worn paths cut years ago, then I invite you to sign up and add your name to the list of technology pioneers.

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13 Responses to Ubuntu Edge: What it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important

  1. Winael says:

    Hi Michael,

    I’m sorry for now I can only give few money to this campaign, bad timing ^^

    I think you miss a point about this campaign and why it’s very very important.

    For the first time, it’s a big compagny, who try to make a crowdfunding campaign on a very big project of a pilotes series of devices.

    It’s not only a revolution for Ubuntu, it’s a revolution for the entire industry. If the campaign suceed, and I wish with all my heart it will, it will be a very striong signal, that the word is ready for crowdfunding/crowdsourcing innovation.

    Maybe tomorrow, it will be Samsung, or Dell or Asus, who will make a crowdfunding campaign for a pilote project for a innovative tablets, or I don’t know, Ford or Chrysler for a pilote project of innovative electric car, based on Ubuntu Egde experience. That’s just amazing that’s Ubuntu goes where be dragons

    And from the crowdfunding point of view, the Ubuntu Edge experience will be very instructive, whatever it’s failed or suceeded. With your experience we will be able to lear what’s working and what’s failed in crowfunding community management. And it’s very important for the futur.

    Thanks for doing this :)

    Best Regards,

    PS : I sent the link of your article to a french magazine which speaks about innovation to prepare the word of tomorrow (We Demain). I hope they wrote an article about Ubuntu Edge and what’s important for Industry, Opensource, and Crowdfunding :)

  2. The primary motive for the explorers of the new world was to “get rich, fast”. They were clearly not doing this because of some sense of adventure.

    It didn’t work out that way in the North. While in the South (Mexcio and southwards), there were enough inhabitants to be exploited, and the land was fertile enough (and lots of gold, too), the story in the North was that the explorers found out that there’s not enough people to enslave, so they found out that they had to do the work themselves.

    • Michael Hall says:

      I wasn’t thinking quite that far back, more the mid-to-late 19th century. I certainly wouldn’t want to associate our work with what was done by those 15th and 16th century explorers.

      • Roger. says:

        Ah, you mean the expansion of the United States from the Eastern Seaboard through violent conquest of the native inhabitants? Not really sure that was much better.

        • Michael Hall says:

          I’m sure you can find deplorable examples in every age and place if that’s the point you want to make. But not all exploration was evil.

          • Aaron Seigo says:

            Michael, you need to brush up on your history. The “explorations” into the Americas and Africa by Europeans were uniformly and nearly without exception laced with murder, genocide of indigenous populations, illegal land expropriation and theft of natural resources.

            I assume you weren’t aware of this when you used that example (which is why I contacted you *privately* on Google+ when I first read this blog entry), but it is an amazingly insensitive remark to the millions who suffered in the Americas and Africa as a result of some 4 centuries of imperialism and mercantalism.

            To dig your heels in once you are given that information is just appalling. As someone who has lived with and among people who suffered directly from the example you are holding up as something to emulate, I find it sickening.

            If you really can’t understand this, I encourage you to walk on to a First Nations’ land and try that line from your blog entry on them … their response will be illuminating. In lieu of that, go search for “canada residential school” and read what happened, not as an exception but as the norm across that great land as a direct result and intentional aspect of that 19th century exploration and expansion.

            If you’re looking for exciting and benevolent exploration, may I instead suggest that of the antarctic or the 20th century explorations of space?

          • Michael Hall says:

            The exploration of both poles would indeed be a better example.

          • Aaron Seigo says:

            Thanks for updating the article; besides being more respectful to those on the wrong end of the European incursions to the Americas and Africa, I think the example there now is much more in line with the goals and intentions of Ubuntu / Canonical. Cheers, and respect for the edit.

  3. Roger. says:

    On a more on-topic note, I would like to ask which aspects of the Edge you think will actually be more than a year in advance of the top-end of the market come next May, and what leads you to that conclusion? To me, the Edge hardware simply doesn’t look that far advanced, except possibly the battery tech.

    • Michael Hall says:

      The battery for sure, and the sapphire crystal glass too I don’t think we’ll see on any other phone in 2014. The 128 GB of storage we might see, but I wouldn’t bank on it, and it won’t be common. We will probably see 4GB of RAM and a similarly powerful CPU by the end of 2014.

  4. cm-t says:


    Nice overview of the Ubuntu Edge, I have something to link now, when it’s trolling about that on the internets :)

    NB: in the indiegogo link, didnt you mean http://igg.me/at/ubuntuedge/x/4090883 ? :P

  5. man says:

    “In order to fully understand and appreciate what the campaign is about, it might be easiest to first explain fully what it isn’t.” – Michael Hall.

    You forgot to mention what it isn’t.
    For example it is not a tree, nor a bike.

  6. Thomas says:

    My trouble with the Ubuntu Edge is, that I can’t for the life of me figure out why it would be a good idea to have a phone and desktop pc merged in a single device?

    As I understand it, the Edge boots as a regular android phone when not connected to anything and as a full ubuntu desktop when connected to a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

    Now as much as I like the idea of replacing my hot, noisy pc with a small, silent device running a full version of ubuntu desktop, I can’t really figure out why I would need that device to be portable? With cloud based storage, there really isn’t any need to carry a “pc device” back and forth, why not just have a device for the office and one at home and let the cloud make sure they both have the same look, feel and documents?
    If I want to carry a pc back and forth, a laptop makes more sense because I can use that while I’m traveling, not just at the destinations where the monitor and keyboard are waiting.

    So a small device with a full version of ubuntu to replace my pc, great! Having to carry that device all over the place, when I can’t use it to work while on the move? Why would I want to? What’s the point of that?

    Then for the phone part. Yes it looks nice, I like the idea of a strong battery and sapphire glass, I’m sure it’s a nice phone. But I like my phone to work all the time. The idea of tying it to my monitor at work, booting it into a different os (ubuntu), just doesn’t make sense to me.
    Lets say I have the Edge connected to my monitor, working with ubuntu desktop, then I get a call. Normally I would just pick up my phone, answer it, maybe pace a bit round my office to stretch my legs while talking, maybe step outside for a moment to catch a breath of air while trying to tune out whatever my wife is telling me. With the Edge wired to my monitor and keyboard I can’t do that.

    So why is it a great idea to tie a phone and desktop pc into a single device, having to dualboot between using that device as a phone or using it as a desktop pc? What’s the advantage over just having a regular phone and a regular pc as two devices? And what’s the idea behind carrying my “desktop pc” with me when I’ve left the monitor and keyboard behind and can’t work while travelling anyway?

    What actual benefits would I gain with a Edge over a regular phone and pc setup?

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