"We're clearly aware that it was quite a crazy thing to ask for," Victor Palau, one of the principal creators behind the Ubuntu Edge's $32 million crowdfunding campaign, told me with a laugh this week.
For the uninitiated, the Ubuntu Edge is a theoretical smartphone developed by London-based software developer Canonical. It's theoretical, at this point, because as of Thursday, the Edge has missed the deadline to meet its Indiegogo campaign goal. (The project was about $20 million short.) And while other Indiegogo campaigns allow their creators to keep the funds raised and continue to work on the product, the team behind the Ubuntu Edge decided to make it an all-or-nothing deal. Backers will get their money back, and plans for the Edge will be discontinued in the short term. (Some critics have alleged that the entire campaign was one big marketing stunt from the beginning, created simply to feed a media frenzy around the company.)
The Big Idea
Still, the Edge managed to raise $12 million from nearly 27,000 backers, proof that there would likely be mainstream interest in the device if it ever were to come to fruition.
That's because the Edge is a large step forward for the "converged device" movement, an idea long-espoused by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth developed Ubuntu, the operating system, to be free and open-source.
Basically, the idea boils down to this: All of your devices, be it tablet, phone, or laptop, should operate on the same software. That way, users can toggle through devices--and use the same systems--without much disruption. The Edge would have been the company's first hardware device to run on the system.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of ZDNET.com explains:
Canonical is far from the first company to talk about a hybrid all-in-one computing device. It's the first I know of that had an operating system, Ubuntu, and an interface, Unity that can run across smartphones, tablets, and PCs.
As ZDNet's Jason Perlow said recently , "For Shuttleworth's vision to become a reality, you need platform unification. In other words, the smartphone, tablet and desktop OS need to become the same operating system, the same developer target and ultimately, the same device."
I think that's exactly where our technology is going. Even if the Ubuntu Edge doesn't happen, Canonical has positioned itself as a visionary company in this new form of computing.
Vaughan-Nichols is right. Even though the campaign failed, the idea has gained consumer interest and national attention (the Edge even received an $80,000 investment from Bloomberg to make the device a reality). That attention, Palau believes, may push other device manufacturers to consider a similar approach, even if it's not Canonical.
In that sense, Palau sees the campaign as a success--even if it was technically a failure.
"It's short from what we wanted, but it told us that we weren't completely crazy, or that we had completely the wrong idea," he says.
Where the $32 Million Figure Came From
The decision to crowdfund in the first place was one that the company did not take lightly. Palau, whose position at Canonical is "Vice President, Bringing Phone and Hyperscale products to market," says the decision was made for several reasons.
"We knew we could find investment ways to get it out, but we wanted a way that was out in the open, and a way that would get the community involved," he says. "So the main thing we were looking at was feedback for the community--what works and what doesn't work. It's something the users and highly technical users are interested in, so that feedback was essential."
And the $32 million goal? He explains:
The number came out of doing some homework on what would be needed to bring the phone to market. And ultimately bringing a phone like this to market requires a lot industrial design work, electrical design, testing, etc. We could have gone for a lower total number, but with a much higher per-unit cost. So, we tried to find something that was a good compromise.
Ultimately, Palau says the campaign was important, even if Canonical is not the first company to achieve an all-in-one smartphone device.
"I hope we do see a bigger trend going towards converged devices going forward," he says. "I think we can do much more with the technology we have available today. I feel like if I picked up my Android today, there hasn't been a qauntam leap of change in the last couple of years--a little bigger screen, a little more memory. It's a bit frustrating. I hope that changes."