Canonical Goes Big In Attempt To Crowdfund Exclusive Ubuntu Phone

from the real-time-market-research dept

It’s no secret that Mark Shuttleworth, the CEO of Canonical, maker of Ubuntu Linux, has very strongly embraced the mobile ecosystem as the future. Back in May, he famously “closed” bug 1 listed for Ubuntu, which was “Microsoft has a majority market,” declaring that this was no longer true, thanks to iOS and Android (mainly Android).

Android may not be my or your first choice of Linux, but it is without doubt an open source platform that offers both practical and economic benefits to users and industry. So we have both competition, and good representation for open source, in personal computing.

Even though we have only played a small part in that shift, I think it’s important for us to recognize that the shift has taken place. So from Ubuntu’s perspective, this bug is now closed.

This came a few months after Canonical had announced that it was launching Ubuntu for mobile platforms back at MWC.

Now they’re taking it up a notch with an incredibly ambitious crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, trying to raised $32 million in one month, for an exclusive new hardware device, the Ubuntu Edge, which will only be available to backers of the project (if it gets funded). The video Shuttleworth put together is worth watching:

Basically, they’re trying to build the ultimate smartphone, and they appear to have rethought a few key design elements, including using sapphire crystal for the screen, rather than easily cracked glass. The software will work with Android, so you wouldn’t have to totally do without Android, or its vast developer community. It’s definitely an interesting campaign. The idea isn’t to be “in the smartphone business,” but rather to set a new high bar that will push others (and, of course, to encourage more people to use Ubuntu, both for mobile and desktop). As Shuttleworth notes, they’re not going to be selling any more of these outside of the IndieGoGo campaign, though they may do similar crowdfunding campaigns in the future with the goal of continuing to drive the market forward. It’s a fascinating strategy: if the rest of the world isn’t innovating fast enough, lead the way yourself with the express intent that others will follow and help make your software more valuable in the process.

One other interesting tidbit: they set up the campaign so that if people bid on the first day, they can get the phone for $600, or $230 less than it is throughout the rest of the campaign. The campaign shot through half a million very quickly and is still going up from there, but I wonder if it will slow down a bit after the first day and the price goes up.

If this project reaches $32 million, it will more than triple the most successful crowdfunding project to date, the Pebble smartwatch, which raised over $10 million. But, this is exactly the kind of project that crowdfunding was made for — because it really is investing in a somewhat risky project, while also acting as a form of market research. People who are buying into this are buying into the vision — which is definitely a risk. The phone hasn’t been built yet. All the imagery are renderings, rather than prototypes. And, you never know how the execution will turn out. Personally, I’d rather see and feel a phone before I shell out $600 or $800 for the device, but for people will to support the basic idea of advancing mobile computing, it appears that many see it as a worthwhile contribution towards that goal, whether or not the device itself turns out to be worth it.

It’s quite impressive to see how quickly they’ve brought in so much money — and it will really say something about the hunger for moving the space forward if they can get to $32 million. Of course, even if it doesn’t reach the $32 million goal, the project is clearly successful on multiple levels. As we’ve noted in the past, crowdfunding projects that don’t reach their goals are not “failures.” They’re smart market research at work. If there isn’t a big enough market for these phones, Canonical just saved itself a ton of money by not going ahead with the actual production. And, at the same time, they still get a ton of free publicity for the mobile software… So whether or not this project hits its goal, it’s crowdfunding done right.

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Comments on “Canonical Goes Big In Attempt To Crowdfund Exclusive Ubuntu Phone”

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Zakida Paul (profile) says:

Whatever you think of Ubuntu/Canonical/Shuttleworth, you have got to admire the man’s ambition.

Rather than resting on his laurels he is taking risks, and trying to break into new markets. I love the prospect of an Ubuntu powered phone/tablet and will be following the project with anticipation. Anything that can break into the market enjoyed by the big 3 can only be a good thing.

Ben S (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

With a startup loan, the bank is hoping to get paid back. They will filter things through a very different lense (how much money can we possibly make, how likely are we to make money). This is different from a business or consumer who isn’t expecting a monetary return on a product, and just wants to have their own copy of the finished product. On top of that, you’re expected to pay back a loan, with a crowdfunded item, it’s hoped you’ll be capable of delivering on the promises.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

reconciling the fundamental difference between how the phone OS and the desktop OS are used

Why do so many developers think this is a good idea? It’s a terrible idea, as literally every effort has demonstrated clearly.

What makes a great interface for phone or tablet makes a terrible interface for the desktop — and vice versa.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Maybe so, I don’t know. I thought that this phone would be using the Unity interface, which is an attempt at a single UI for all form factors. KDE’s major changes have the same thing in mind. And let’s not forget Windows 8.

All of them fail miserably at the one-size-fits-all thing, as is inevitable.

Apple is the only one who seems to understand this: phones and desktops have very different UI needs, and need different UIs.

Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

In this case the idea is not that you have exactly the same UI. You have certain things that are common, certain things that are similar, and the rest is made unique to that size device and the available input. The same applies to the work being done on KDE. It’s only really Windows that has tried to use almost exactly the same UI across everything.

out_of_the_blue says:

Really, a new phone? Whee! Innovation!

And can’t get a measly $32 million?

Many are these campaigns seem like funding only the fund-raisers:
“[IndieGogo] levies a 4% fee for successful campaigns. For campaigns that fail to raise their target amount, users have the option of either refunding all money to their contributors at no charge or keeping all money raised but with a 9% fee.”

Scams are increasing because libertarian noobs never expect bad actors in their “free” notions. For instance, Shuttleworth might intentionally set the goal too high, actually hopes reaches only say $10 million, of which his pals at IndieGogo get 9 percent, and he skips with over 9 million. There don’t appear to be insurance or bonding or investigations or anything real businesses must do, only Terms of Service pages that disclaim all responsibility for a “platform”.

As IndieGogo is HQ’d in San Fransisco, home of the scammers, Mike may have an interest in this, either way it goes. He’s not required to disclose his interests, ya know, cause you’re getting this all for “free”, or worse, agreeing to pay him.

The catchphrase of “teh internets” is not just “Buyer Beware”, but “Contributor Be REAL Wary”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Really, a new phone? Whee! Innovation!

For instance, Shuttleworth might intentionally set the goal too high, actually hopes reaches only say $10 million, of which his pals at IndieGogo get 9 percent, and he skips with over 9 million

The 4%/9% split depends on what type of project you set up. This one is set up to ONLY receive funds if it reaches the full amount. So the hypothetical you express above is impossible.

Facts can be useful. You should try them.

lfroen (profile) says:

Re: Really, a new phone? Whee! Innovation!

Actually I agree.
Are they about to compete with let’s say Nokia, that has about 20 years of experience in industrial design? Or with Apple, which have ~10 years in UI design? Or maybe with Samsung+Google, both having budget counted in billions?

Now, 32M is not very big number. It actually means, that custom SoC is out of question; or in simpler terms: not Apple/Samsung level of integration for you.

So, crappy hardware is almost guaranteed. Now, since software is supposed to be “Android-compatible”, I don’t see much innovation here either.

In short – useless gimmick.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Really, a new phone? Whee! Innovation!

Are they about to compete with let’s say Nokia, that has about 20 years of experience in industrial design? Or with Apple, which have ~10 years in UI design? Or maybe with Samsung+Google, both having budget counted in billions?

As if small upstart teams with a lot less money haven’t completely overturned giant dominant expensive paradigms in the past?

While I agree that it makes sense to be skeptical, to automatically rule it out based on the above seems silly? Upstarts with much smaller budgets very often do approach things from a different angle and upset the apple cart…

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

The Door is Closed

One of the problems they are going to face is a lack of low-hanging fruit.

In 2006, the cellular industry had languished since the turn of the century with slow phone innovation. Carriers blocked improvements because they cost an additional 30 cents, or because they threatened their stranglehold on industry control.

I worked for a Korean cellular company, and we tried selling our 3G solutions to US carriers that were still on 2G networks. One of our humble improvements was color on the phone LCD. I was in talks with the senior people at a top US phone company, and my favorite quote remains:

“We’re not sure the US consumer wants color in their phone.”

That was 2001. After that, the US was treated to a number of years of Motorola Razr, where the best innovations involved a new color each year. If, on occasion, a phone maker made a better phone, like 2005’s Nokia N95, then carriers would not subsidize it because it cost too much. The market was not competitive, but it was “locked down” by carriers.

That left all kinds of low-hanging fruit for a new entrant able to upset the apple cart and give consumers a decent product. So, we all know what happened — Apple did just that. Capactive touch screens and a good UI that respects the user were not new ideas…it’s just that it took Apple to commit to use it. The challenge around Shuttleworth’s efforts today are, the market looks completely different.

Today, cellular phones are tremendously competitive and I would argue almost as good as they can be. There is competition at the high, mid, and low tiers, but the greatest competition in the market is for the so-called flagship phones. The hero phones, or the halo phones that make the entire brand look cool. So HTC, Motorola, LG, Nokia, Samsung, Sony et al compete to put out the best device. When they don’t push it far enough, Google puts out a Nexus model to nudge things forward. On the OS side, Apple and Android are doing a good job of giving the consumer features they want in a good UI. If they hesitate to improve, they know Windows Phone, BlackberryOS, Tizen or others will eat their lunch.

In technology, there is often an unseen missing feature, or some better way of doing things that a newcomer can use as a doorway in. But at this juncture, there are several big players already trying to find those doors to claw their way back against Samsung. The market simply lacks the low-hanging fruit. So good luck to Canonical, I’ll cheer for the underdog, but I’m not putting my money on this bet.


montgoss (profile) says:

Re: The Door is Closed

I think Canonical is saying that the missing feature IS the convergence with the desktop. (Notice that one of their support tiers is for an enterprise bundle where a company gets 100 Edge’s to act as employees PC and mobile phone.)
I’ve thought this idea has been overdue for a few years now. I think it will ultimately be the approach for personal computing, even if it’s not Ubuntu Edge as the market leader.
These phones have more computing power and faster internet than a top-of-the-line laptop had a decade ago…

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Door is Closed

OK, but look up Mirrorlink or MHL technology.

Each of those technologies reproduces the phone screen on a big display. And they are included in hundreds of phone models…including this one by Canonical. Hey, I love the concept of convergence with the desktop (done well). But it’s not a missing feature, nor significantly innovative compared to the competition.

Disclosure: I have consulted for MHL as an evangelist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bad start

Phones do not cost $800+ to manufacture. Ubuntu wants to milk their contributors (who make the project possible in the first place) for the retail price it doesn’t cost to make a phone, and won’t even be sold to the general public? Not to mention no support for CDMA, tech specs that by May 2014 won’t be all that impressive, and no guarantee the phone will be made? The project has fail written all over it.

They clearly don’t know how crow funding works or they wouldn’t start the contributions at $20 and go immediately to $830. Seriously, I hope they do fail at this. Screw them for trying to screw their contributors.

montgoss (profile) says:

Re: Bad start

They pre-sold 5,000 at $600 each. The Galaxy S4 that Samsung sold millions of costs $630. Is it that much of a stretch for them to budget $800 for a top-end superphone?
They’re putting a minimum of 4GB of RAM in that thing when the most expensive phones available today just started coming with 2GB. I expect the other specs (like processor) to be absolutely top-of-the-line as well. And they’re not making millions of these. They’re shooting to sell 40,000 of these devices. Component prices are obviously not as great as if they were ordering > 1 million of the various parts. So yah, early adopters can expect to pay a little more than the mass-produced phones of today…

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