Ubuntu: living life on the Edge

The company that brought you a usable flavour of Linux now wants to sell you a smartphone. But is it a smart idea?

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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In January 2010, I was on the lookout for a new phone. It was finally time to upgrade to a proper smartphone, but I wasn’t interested in joining the iPhone cult. But which way to jump? I considered one of the new Android phones, but they just seemed like pale imitations of the iPhone. Then I came upon a left-field alternative: the Nokia N900.

Unlike the iPhone, it had a proper, slidedown keyboard. You could just about imagine writing an article on it. It ran a version of Linux and, unlike the closed-down operating systems on other phones, you could do proper nerdy things on it. It even had some nice, unusual hardware touches, like an FM transmitter, which meant you could play your music through a radio, if you had one to hand; that said, the built-in stereo speakers were superior to those on any other phone I had seen. Unfortunately, it was so heavy that if you couldn’t keep up the payments on your contract, you could easily take out a jeweller’s shop window with it.

All it would take, I thought, would be for Nokia to evolve their shiny new operating system, called Maemo, from a rather clunky, nerd-friendly, normal-people-repellent mess into a smooth, app-store-toting dream. And when they did, and the N900 was the cool phone to own, I could say I was in on the ground floor, so far ahead of the curve that I could barely keep my finger on the pulse.

Unfortunately, having signed on for two years of contract payments, this was the moment that Nokia – in full shouting-at-the-traffic, corporate-meltdown mode – decided to drop its new baby, and leave punters like me fuming as our friends showed off all the whizz-bang things they could do with their boring, safe-choice smartphones.

I was reminded about all this when I read that Canonical – the nice people who finally brought the world a user-friendly version of the Linux operating system, called Ubuntu – went full-steam ahead with a plan to build their very own smartphone – the Ubuntu Edge. The aim is to show off and test their own phone operating system. Canonical’s funding model for their shiny new toy is very much in keeping with modern fashions, too: the phone will be crowdfunded through Indiegogo.

Edge by name, cutting edge by nature. The new phone is being pitched as exclusive, as a testbed for new ideas. So currently, for a pledge of $675, you can get yourself a very nice piece of hardware – basically, a phone with the grunt of a desktop PC – with an expected delivery date of May 2014.

But is there really a market out there for yet another flavour of smartphone alongside the offerings from Apple, Google, Microsoft and Blackberry? ‘We believe that we have a very different proposition’, says Victor Palau, VP of mobile delivery at Canonical. ‘First of all, the user experience is different to everything available on the market. It’s intuitive and well designed. In addition, the Ubuntu OS that runs on smartphones is exactly the same OS that runs on tablets, PCs and TVs. It is a truly scalable device and offers real opportunities for convergence. We are not aiming to dominate the market, but we are offering an attractive user proposition, and for operators we’re not aiming to dominate the user relationship, which gives them more control and flexibility.’ Has Palau used a smartphone lately? Being ‘intuitive and well designed’ would hardly make an Ubuntu phone ‘different to everything available on the market’.

If the Ubuntu phone has a unique selling point, it’s about bringing together different kinds of device into one. According to Palau, the Edge is a ‘truly converged device’. It will dual-boot – you’ll be able to use it with Ubuntu’s operating system or with Google’s Android software. Plug in a monitor, however, and you can access the full Ubuntu desktop version. This is the ‘Wash and Go’ of mobile computing. Why take two devices with you when you can just use one?

But, say critics, why would you bother when you can have a tablet, like an iPad, that will do most of these things already and comes with a nice, large, user-friendly screen built in? ‘It all depends on what the user wants to do with their device’, says Palau. ‘If it’s for browsing, then a tablet will perhaps suffice. However, it’s not always just a case of the size of the screen, but rather what they can hook up to it. The converged-device functionality is much more powerful than a tablet on its own.’

Hardware wise, the Edge will certainly not be lacking for processing power. It will also have the cred to impress your mates in the pub. Glass screen? Forget about it. The Edge will be made of tough-as-diamond sapphire. The phone will ship with as much memory – 4GB – as the laptop I’m writing on. And it will be exclusive. If the crowdfunding idea works and this batch of phones really is made, that will be the lot. Palau tells me that the Edge will ‘only be available for the duration of the Indiegogo campaign. When it’s finished there will be no more made. However, we are working with partners to bring Ubuntu OS to phones to the mass market.’

I’m still not clear about the merits of the phone or whether there really is a need for devices to ‘converge’ rather than do different jobs while still talking to each other. And as for Ubuntu, even though it is my first-choice laptop operating system at home, it’s also the case that the ‘improvements’ in recent versions – particularly Ubuntu’s ‘Unity’ desktop – have been more irritating than useful. But a phone that’s as powerful as a desktop? With cool hardware and the option of Ubuntu or Android? This kind of proposition could have been custom built to have my nerd neurons firing like a 21-gun salute.

Even if the phone itself proves to be run-of-the-mill or its additional, unique features prove to be little more than ornamental, trying to raise $32million for a testbed through crowdfunding certainly takes cojones. It would be worth it just to be part of a heroic failure. Now, $675 – how much is that in real money?

Rob Lyons is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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