The $32 million super-phone is dead

The $32 million super-phone is dead
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POSTED: Sunday, August 25, 2013 - 12:00pm

UPDATED: Sunday, August 25, 2013 - 12:04pm

Sometimes a good idea just isn't good enough.

Canonical, maker of the popular free operating system Ubuntu, wanted to produce a smartphone to showcase what its forthcoming mobile OS can do.

So it launched an Indiegogo campaign asking backers to help make its project a reality. But this wasn't any ordinary campaign. Not only was Canonical attempting to generate $32 million in funding -- the largest crowdfunding goal ever -- it was asking everyone who actually wanted the hardware to pony up $830 (it would later lower this price to $695, which is still more than you'd pay for a contract-free iPhone).

The price matched the promise: this wasn't going to be a mid-range device that merely ran the software. Canonical wanted to produce the best phone on the market: a high-end, flagship device which could generate the same sort of consumer lust that a device like the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S phones do.

It would have a quad-core processor faster than anything available right now. It would have a sapphire screen capable of withstanding extra abuse. And it would be able to function as a full Linux PC when connected to a keyboard and monitor, giving it functionality that most people see as a future innovation.

"Ultimately it would be a great way to bring attention to the fact that convergence is available today," said Canonical Vice President Victor Palau.

But it wasn't to be: The campaign ended up missing its mark by quite a lot on Wednesday, only generating $12.8 million -- still the most amount of money ever raised by a crowdfunding platform.

Canonical says that it went the crowdfunding route because it had no plans to become a proper hardware maker, and didn't want to accept any sort of investment money. It simply wanted to produce a run of 40,000 devices to show how its software should look and feel on a device.

Now that the campaign is over and dead, Canonical says that it will move on from pursing the Ubuntu Edge smartphone. Instead, the company will work to partner up with hardware manufacturers and push its Mobile Ubuntu platform.

While it's true that, even in failure, the Ubuntu Edge project generated more crowdfunding than any other project ever, it should have been expected that it would. After all, there are few things more relevant in technology right now than aspiring to make the best smartphone on the market.

But the Edge project had a fatal flaw: Interesting as its features were, it wouldn't have solved many problems currently found in smartphones right now. It was all very nice looking, but at the end of the day, there was nothing substantially different from what you'd get from an iPhone or Android smartphone.

The proposed processor speed and RAM capacity was more than we've seen in previous devices, but there was nary a word of size, weight, battery life or camera performance, which are all very important features to be overlooking. Plus, we wouldn't be seeing this until the middle of 2014 at the earliest, which is enough time for plenty of superior devices to materialize from the big smartphone makers.

And ultimately, the biggest innovation it promises - smartphone/PC convergence - is just something people aren't ready for yet. Being able to use a phone as a PC is 100% dependent on having access to a monitor, mouse and keyboard wherever you want to use it. Easy access to that gear outside the home or office is hardly ubiquitous. In fact, it's quite scarce.

Combine these concerns with the fact that any mobile OS not named iOS or Android faces considerable difficulty attracting third-party app developers, and it's not hard to see why even those who are interested by the idea would have pause.

In the end, it wasn't so much that the Ubuntu edge was a bad idea, or even a preposterous one. It simply was not an idea that addressed any pressing needs or provided new insights on what role technology could play in the lives of normal people. If it had done that, it wouldn't have needed to crowdfund the phone at all. 

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