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On the Ubuntu Edge

HOW many people would pay hundreds of dollars for a cutting-edge phone that hasn’t yet been built? Quite a number, it seems. To date, more than 1,800 people have pledged between $725 to $10,000 to get an Ubuntu Edge, a high-end smart phone that dual boots between Android and Ubuntu, and which can be connected to a monitor and Bluetooth keyboard to act as a desktop computer. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, turned to the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $32 million to fund a limited production run of about 40,000 phones. The company must meet its ambitious target in a month or get nothing at all, in which case all pledges will be refunded. In a video on the Ubuntu Edge campaign home page on Indiegogo, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth explains why his company turned to crowdfunding after talking to companies who actually make phones. “Along the way, we learned... that new mobile technologies get proven in the lab but then hit a production roadblock because manufacturers don’t want to select a new technology for a device that’s supposed to sell 10 million or 50 million units until they know it can be built on that scale,” Shuttleworth says. “In the motor car industry, we have Formula One to test new technology but the mobile industry has nothing like that. There’s no premium segment for expert drivers. It’s like everyone is driving mass-produced sedans. We don’t have a consumer testbed for cutting edge technologies. But we do have a new mechanism for driving innovation: crowdfunding.” In the case of Ubuntu Edge, innovation is built into the hardware and software, Canonical says. A prototype shows a body crafted from a single piece of black, textured metal with bevelled edges, measuring 6.4 cm x 12.4 cm x 0.9 cm. Into this form factor, the company says, it will squeeze in a fast multi-core processor capable of running a desktop operating system, at least 4 gigabytes (GB) of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage. The phone will use a silicon-anode Li-Ion battery. The 4.5-inch 1,280 x 720 HD screen will be protected by pure sapphire crystal, the hardest substance after the diamond. The phone will also incorporate an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front camera, stereo speakers with HD audio, dual-mic recording and active noise cancellation. Ubuntu Edge will support dual LTE, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4, and Near Field Communication, and will come with GPS, an accelerometer, a proximity sensor, compass and barometer. The phone connects to HDMI TVs and monitors with an MHL connector and a 3.5mm jack. On the software site, the phone will feature a touch-enabled version of the Ubuntu desktop OS as well as Android. Having the full desktop OS running on the phone means users will be able to move seamlessly from one environment to the other with no file syncing or transfers required, the company says. The core OS and applications are fully integrated with their smart phone equivalents, so users can even make and receive calls from the desktop while they work. So how is the campaign coming along? With 24 days until the campaign ends (on Aug. 22), Canonical has already raised $7.1 million or about 22 percent of its target, and broken fund-raising records at Indiegogo. Still, it’s a toss-up whether the company can maintain its momentum and raise the entire amount by the end of its campaign. Reaction to the Ubuntu Edge has been generally favorable, with CNET’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols saying that Canonical not only looks set to hit its target, but might change the computing world along the way. His reasons: gadget lovers won’t be able to resist, and Canonical has been working on a combining an Android smart phone with the Ubuntu desktop since 2012. “Mark and company know exactly what they’re doing,” Vaughan-Nichols says. On the other end of the spectrum, Sebastian Anthony of ExtremeTech says Ubuntu Edge is doomed to fail because current processor and battery technologies simply cannot support Canonical’s vision. “Given the state of the art of processors and batteries, there’s still only so much that Canonical can squeeze in,” he writes. He adds that the company “will almost certainly not reach its funding goal.” Who will prove correct? We will know in 24 days. Chin Wong Column archive and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com
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