On Monday, Canonical did something special: it kicked-off the fundraising campaign for the Ubuntu Edge, not only endeavoring to break some crowdfunding records, but to change the nature of the relationship between manufacturer and smartphone user in the process.
It’s all wildly ambitious. I have serious concerns about Canonical’s ability to pull this off, and we’re talking about a serious amount of money to ask people to hand over with plans for availability still so far away. At first, I was content to just sit back and see how this story unfolds, covering the news like with any launch, but as I watched the last of those 5000 early adopter $600 handsets being snatched up one by one, the impulse won out: I want to be on the ground floor for seeing how this Edge project happens, so I threw my $600 in the hat.
Winning Me Over
It’s funny – I’m not even a big fan of Ubuntu for smartphones. It’s probably one of the better upstart platforms hanging back in the wings – I certainly have more faith in it than Firefox OS – but I’m not particularly drawn to it. That doesn’t exactly make me a prime candidate for funding a project like the Ubuntu Edge, but there’s just so much more to the phone.
First and foremost, I’m dazzled by the hardware. From the design, to the killer specs, the Edge just looks HOT. When it comes to a handset’s appearance, I love well-defined edges, clean angles, and as few curves as possible – basically, I want the phone equivalent of a pre-1995 Volvo, and the Edge delivers. The choice of materials sounds awesome, too, and the use of amorphous metal really starts establishing the futuristic vibe I get from this phone.
Far more so than with the case material, I’m excited about the display. The Edge will feature a synthetic sapphire screen, more scratch resistant than nearly anything around. We’ve been covering developments like this for a while, even checking out how the material is made, but its use in phones has been severely limited. Sure, it shows up in some crazy expensive models, but we haven’t seen any manufacturers adopt it for a more mass market device – even if it ultimately doesn’t cost that much more per handset, it’s still eating into profits, so no one’s taken the initiative. With the Ubuntu Edge, Canonical doesn’t have to deal those same concerns, and can tailor-make the phone to meet the needs of a specific user base that will actually appreciate the use of such materials.
I love the idea of future-proofing phones, and hate how no one’s doing it. I get why it makes sense for the manufacturers, always tempting customers to come back for the latest models, but that doesn’t make me like it any better. With the Ubuntu Edge, we’re finally seeing a phone with specs well beyond what anyone else is doing: 4GB of RAM and 128GB flash.
Now, I’ve written about the perils of the RAM race before – how the availability of more RAM leads to the development of apps that require larger and larger amounts, eventually leading to the need for devices with higher capacities – a vicious cycle. I do believe that it’s starting to slow down, and we’re not going to see apps refusing to run on even 1GB RAM phones anytime soon, but honestly, with 4GB, who cares? With a phone like that, you’re up in the clouds, leaving memory concerns to the plebs.
With the storage, sure, you can get there now. Start with a lot of internal flash, add a big microSD (and full-on 128GB microSD cards will be here soon), and you’re golden. Still, having it all hard-wired is convenient, and I think I can safely say that I won’t be needing more space than that on a mobile device for a long time to come.
I’m also really looking forward to the ability to connect the Edge to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and boot into a full-fledged Ubuntu desktop. I already use Ubuntu on my ThinkPad, but it could be super convenient to just carry around the Edge and a cable or two instead.
Maybe I’ll come around to Ubuntu for phones – I’m not sure, and I’ll want to play around with the Nexus 4 ROM a little in the coming months – but Android seals the deal for me. Even if this was a pure Android phone, with this look, and these specs, it’s hard to argue it wouldn’t be worth $600.
This is really just scratching the surface – the dual LTE antennas, the advanced battery tech – anyone complaining about the lack of a 1080p display is simply missing the big picture.
So Much Could Go Wrong
Of course, all my enthusiasm is hinged on Canonical delivering the Ubuntu Edge largely as described. Details may change over the next nine months, and I might not get exactly what I’m hoping for. Like I said, this is ambitious as all get-out.
Even if I do see the Edge realized, there’s still a lot to be worried about. Like that sapphire glass – it’s no secret that sapphire is still vulnerable to shattering, and its gemstone allure may make it seem like a better real-world option than it actually is.
I’m also worried about the software – admittedly, Android will make a fine backup, but I’d love to see all the Ubuntu stuff working as well as possible, too. Canonical has mentioned how some features – like entering the Ubuntu desktop from phone mode – will be delivered post-launch via update. Anticipating a delay like that, this far in advance, is a little weird.
Maybe more than anything, there’s the issue that the phone probably won’t hit its funding goal. If backers don’t put up the full $32M in a month, it’s game over. While we managed to snag those first 5000 handsets in under a day, sales have been a LOT slower since.
When I checked late Monday night, about 100 people had paid the full $830 for a regular price Edge. That was up to about 500 by Tuesday evening, some fourteen hours later. OK progress, sure, but Canonical has to convince something like 35,000 people to sign-on. That’s going to take over 1100 orders a day.
Recently, Canonical’s been adding some new, more affordable options to the campaign. First there was the two-for-$1400 option on Tuesday, and today we get a whole lot of new, more affordable perks, including limited numbers of the Edge at $625, $675, and $725 – more price points will be coming, slowly inching up to $830, and with more and more stock available as prices rise. That could be a good sign that Canonical’s making adjustments in order to make sure it hits the $32M target, but it’s also a little worrying that it’s so quick to start knocking back prices, essentially insuring that it will have to sell more phones in order to hit its goal.
I so hope that it does, though, and that the Ubuntu Edge is a cool as it looks. Even if this whole thing fizzles out in a month, I’ll still be glad that someone tried a launch like this, and maybe next time around the magic will actually work.