Article by Copil Yáňez originally appeared in regular column Ask the New Guy in Full Circle Magazine issue 76.
Q: I’ve been hearing a lot about the Ubuntu Edge. Is that something that can help me with my golf game?
A: No, the Ubuntu Edge isn’t something you get when you chug a can of Linux-fortified energy drink. It’s a non-existent device that may (or may not) see the light of day, and could (or could not) revolutionize computing in the mobile era, and might (or might not) give you enough geek street cred to land you a speaking role on The Big Bang Theory.
Let’s back up. A few weeks ago, Canonical posted a teaser campaign to the Ubuntu homepage. It was all very coy, talking about the point at which a line meets space, or an irresistible force meets an immovable object, or chocolate meets peanut butter, or something meets something else, and I had no clue what they were talking about, but it was very, very exciting.
Ubuntu fans went ape. Would this be the release version of the Ubuntu Phone OS? Was a new Ubuntu tablet shipping? Was ABBA getting back together? I need to know! Pretty quickly someone figured out the riddle, and the Ubuntu Edge, whatever that was, emerged as the best guess. We were all still in the dark, but at least we were huddled together in the dark, keeping each other company, reveling in our shared love and speculating about what the big reveal would look like. Kinda like pre-show in the mosh pit at a Lady Gaga concert.
When The Ubuntu Edge itself was finally revealed, people went apeballs. The excitement caused temperatures to rise in nerd-heavy regions of the world. The Akihabara district actually had to shut down for a few days while they mopped up all the drool. People were over the moon, like Macguyver-TV-series-reboot- starring-Felicia-Day-as-Macguyver excited.
The Ubuntu Edge turned out to be a phone like no other. It would dual-boot Ubuntu and Android. Its screen would be made of moon rock (or something equally exotic). The battery would be so experimental no other phone has ever used one like it before. It would give you access to an Ubuntu App Store. It would be shiny. And, most revolutionary of all, it would allow you to connect a keyboard and screen and run native, full-scale Ubuntu, bridging the gap between your mobile phone and your desktop PC.
I haven’t been this excited since I heard Disney bought Lucas Films.
And then reality set in. Ubuntu Edge wasn’t a phone. It wasn’t even a product. It was a concept. And it wasn’t something you could get, it was something you had to fund. And it wasn’t ready today, you’d get it in several months, after it was built, stress-tested and shipped. Here’s what the Ubuntu Edge really is: an Indiegogo crowd- funding campaign to raise the money to build the device shown and spec’d here:
There are different funding categories, from the $20 “Founder” level, which basically gives you bragging rights and tells people you knew from the get-go that Ubuntu Edge was something special, to the “Enterprise Bundle,” which, for $80,000, gets you 115 Ubuntu Edges (Edgii?) and VIP access to developers and support.
The promise of an Ubuntu Edge delivered to your door (once it’s built and shipped) can be had for US$695.
Crowd-funding is the Medici-da Vinci model updated for the modern era. Everything from novels and movies to watches and robots have been funded through Indiegogo, Kickstarter and other community funding sites. You post your idea, tell us why you think we should give you money and, voila! You can go off and make those hipster bike shorts with the integrated wine bottle pocket!
I’ve used these sites. I’ve supported artists and engineers with more brains than coins and helped them realize their dreams. In the process, I’ve received products or experiences I couldn’t get anywhere else.
The Edge follows a well- established landscape for crowd-funding campaigns. And it was wildly successful at launch, breaking all sorts of records for biggest single-day funding, fastest to US$1M, fasted to $2M, largest campaign, etc, etc. The funding goal of US$32,000,000 was ambitious to say the least, but crowdfunding campaigns are, by their nature, ambitious efforts undertaken by dreamers. Canonical clearly knew what they were doing.
Beyond the initial upswell in support, probably the clearest indicator that the Edge campaign was doing something right was the confederacy of naysayers that quickly rallied to kill the project.
I call them Harumphers. Harumphers exist in every community. They are hyper knowledgeable about the topic at hand, incredibly intelligent, completely versed in best practices, and wholly committed to killing your dreams. Their job is not to support your enthusiasm and encourage your excitement. Their job is to show how much they know by telling you why you’re wrong.
I’m not talking about your garden variety sceptic, good people with honest doubts about untested products. These sceptics are the good soldiers, fighting to make bad ideas go away, good ideas better, and great ideas amazing. And here’s the thing, sceptics have a lot of reason to focus their efforts on this campaign. The Ubuntu Edge is a technological marvel doing about ten things that have never been tried before. The critical path to its completion is a minefield of choke points, any one of which could mean the difference between a pocketful of nerd crack and vaporware. The idea of paying $695 for a dream alone might give someone pause.
But I believe in the product and the campaign and would have gladly given at the “Ubunt Edge” level where you get an actual phone (if I had that kind of scratch laying around). I contributed at the Founder Level and encourage others to do so as well. Moreover, I believe the US$695 level is a bargain.
First, the phone only gets made if the whole US$32M gets funded. And if, once you receive your phone, you decide you don’t like it, you can return it. That’s right, you have 28 days to return the phone for a full refund.
Second, US$695 isn’t that much. I know, that sounds insane. I mean, that’s Scooge McDuck money. If I had that kind of money, I’d get it in ones and roll around in it naked. Heck, I’d do that with the money I have now, but the quarters tend to chaffe my butt.
In all seriousness, the US$695 is actually a reasonable price for what you get:
- Bleeding edge battery tech with 5x to 10x the capacity of current batteries
- A sapphire crystal display that’s almost impossible to scratch and is the same type of crystal they use on high end watches like Rolexes and Omegas.
- A completely unlocked phone that runs Android so I can use it with my current service provider (it’s also roughly the same cost as a full-price, unlocked, unsubsidized phone from one of the carriers)
- Either a desktop PC that fits in my pocket or a pocket-sized phone that runs my preferred desktop OS
I think one of the most interesting things about the phone that doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of traction is that this isn’t like buying the newest HTC smart phone from Verizon. This is a device built for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts. It pushes the envelope to its ripping point, and challenges the other device makers to meet them on their turf. Can you imagine a phone that says, “hey, all that talk you guys have been spewing about convergence and how your mobile phone is a PC in your pocket? Yeah, we actually built one.” Boom. The Edge drops its mic and struts off the stage.
No, this is no ordinary phone that’s essentially one standard deviation away from everything else out there. This is so many standard deviations from the norm, it’s playing pick-up games with Nate SIlver in the alley. It’s the phone Michael Schumacher would build if he was into phones instead of cars.
Not only is the device a test bed, it gives the users who funded it a voice in what they want next. Canonical has hinted that if the funding takes off, users could influence the direction of future phones. Think your next phone should be Steam-enabled so you can play your games stored in the cloud? Tell them. If there are enough of you, it could just happen. Imagine going to an auto show, dropping a three-inch carney roll of hundos tied with a rubber band and saying, “I’ll take that Mercedes concept vehicle. And here’s my list of must-haves for the next version you build.” We’d have flying cars in no time.
If this experiment in crowd-funding a new mobile platform fails, it is possible the real message of the thing got lost from concept to consumer. This isn’t a phone, it’s an idea. It’s a way of thinking about technology you use every single day and paying to have it improved, not arithmetically by adding a sexy new background or a must-have user interface, but exponentially by taking the best tech in as many areas as possible and putting it in your pocket.
By the time you read this, we will know if the project met its US$32M goal. If it does, I will be proud to have funded it in its earliest stages. If it doesn’t, I look forward to the next attempt by Canonical to push the limits and try something new.
The Harumphers will always balk, and if the Indiegogo campaign fails, they’ll say, “I told you so.”
If it succeeds, they’ll be annoyed at having to pay double for one on eBay because you know they’ll want one. When that happens, I’ll refrain from saying I told you so.
Good luck and happy Ubuntuing! CY
Copil is an Aztec name that roughly translates to “you need my heart for what again?” His love of women’s shoes is chronicled at yaconfidential.blogspot.com. You can also watch him embarrass himself on Twitter (@copil).