The Ubuntu Edge campaign is in trouble, and here’s why

Ubuntu Edge

The more I track how Canonical is handling the crowdfunding campaign for its Ubuntu Edge smartphone, the more I think it’s going to fail. I get this feeling partly from watching the growing disparity between funds raised and funds needed, and partly from new details that Canonical has recently released.

Let’s start with a graph of the project‘s progress thus far, thoughtfully put together by Canonical’s Gustavo Niemeyer (if you can’t make out the numbers and text on the axes, though, be aware that the graph represents the last few days only, and doesn’t start from zero):

Ubuntu Edge success graph

The red line represents the trajectory needed to hit that ambitious $32 million figure, while the purple represents reality. At the time of writing, around $7.5 million had been raised – if things were going as they should be, 8.5 days into the 30-day campaign, the total so far should be $9.4 million.

Of course, the path towards success would never be straight – incentives boost interest and funds raised. The Indiegogo campaign got off to a good start with the $600 “perk” level flying off the virtual shelves, only to stall afterwards.

People weren’t snapping the device up at its full $830 price (only 33 have done so thus far) so Canonical introduced a new series of perk tiers below that level. These are running out too, now. At the moment, the best offer people can get is $775, which isn’t hugely lower than $830.

So why aren’t people more interested?

Let’s rewind for a moment. Ubuntu was, for a long time, the most popular Linux distribution. It was overtaken a while back by Mint, in part because Ubuntu started changing its interface with a view to becoming more mobile-friendly.

Canonical knew where it was going with its Unity interface – the Ubuntu Edge concept involves one underlying operating system that can be smartphone-y on a mobile screen and desktop-y when connected to a monitor and keyboard – but a lot of Linux enthusiasts weren’t so keen.

So who is it precisely that Canonical is going after with the Ubuntu Edge? It’s certainly not the mass market. The Edge is a concept device with very high internal specifications for a smartphone (4GB of RAM!) that is intended to show off Canonical’s “converged” mobile-desktop approach. What’s more, it will never go on general sale – only those buying into the Indiegogo campaign will get their hands on it.

So you would think Canonical would be desperately trying to attract Linux aficionados to pledge their hard-earned $775-$830. However, on Tuesday Canonical posted a Q&A about the campaign, which included this note:

Will the Ubuntu Edge be sustainable and/or hardware hackable?
While we will do our best to keep the hardware as open as possible, these are not the main focus of the project in its first generation. Hardware that’s capable of convergence is the priority.”

In my view, this is a grave mistake. Hackability and openness are pretty much the top priorities for Linux fans (cynically speaking, why else would someone put themselves through the relative user-unfriendliness of Linux UIs?) and, what is more, there is already another rather successful Linux-based operating system that is very hackable. It’s called Android.

Concept vs reality

The convergence idea hasn’t worked so far – witness Motorola’s Atrix dock, which hardly set the world on fire. But it remains a good idea. Having one device that can be both a smartphone and desktop computer is in itself a very sustainable concept (making Canonical’s lack of focus on sustainable materials a bit easier to forgive), and with sufficient internal horsepower it could well work.

The Ubuntu Edge could prove that, but not if its crowdfunding campaign fails. If that happens, backers won’t lose their money, but Canonical’s reputation will take a serious hit and more low-cost Ubuntu phones – the ultimate goal of this exercise – won’t materialize.

Ultimately, the people Canonical really needs to convince are carriers, who are the ones with the big marketing budgets and also the ones currently diving into Firefox OS as their open alternative to the Android-iOS duopoly. If the crowdfunding campaign succeeds, they are more likely to bite. If it fails, they will run away.

Canonical doesn’t have much space left to introduce cheap tiers, in order to pump up demand for the Edge. The deep-pocketed Linux fanboi demographic is already pretty limited, even before Canonical annoys these potential buyers by downplaying its openness ambitions. And as for average smartphone users, they don’t know what Ubuntu is, nor will they understand Canonical’s convergence play until someone (a carrier, probably) shows it to them in action.

Unless Canonical quickly wises up about playing to its existing fanbase, I’m not sure this crowdfunding endeavor was a risk worth taking.

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