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Ubuntu Edge Phone: A Crazy, Cool Idea That's Probably Ahead of Its Time

August 1, 2013
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/227649

OK, people. It's time to get your mobile geek on. The Ubuntu Edge is a crazy new project for smartphone fanatics.

Wouldn't it be great to have a powerful smartphone that isn't "locked" to any particular carrier, but that could function on any high-speed wireless network? And that could run all your favorite Android apps, but also run a desktop operating system so it could double as a fully functional computer -- just connect it to a monitor and keyboard?

If you think that sounds cool, then you're not alone. The nearly 17,000 people who so far have contributed nearly $8 million to the Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign, which launched July 22, think so, too. Canonical, the company leading the development of the Ubuntu Linux open-source operating system, has set a goal to raise $32 million by Aug. 21. If they achieve this, then people who contributed at least $775 can expect to receive their phone by May of next year.

It's unknown at this point when or whether this phone would become available for general purchase, or how much it might cost.

A crowdfunded, open-technology mobile device like the Ubuntu Edge could be an important step in addressing some current challenges facing the mobile market. For instance, customization. Say you need a mobile phone with special capabilities, such as lots of computing power, a high-end microphone or video card, or the ability to interface with emerging technologies such as mesh networking or innovative mobile devices. Right now, you're out of luck. The mobile handset industry is geared almost entirely to manufacturing products for mass markets -- which constrains mobile innovation.

However, successful crowdfunding could help overcome the considerable financial challenges to bringing specialized mobile devices to market. This could give rise to a mobile hardware market as diverse as the mobile app market has become.

But here's the downside: It's unlikely the Ubuntu Edge will become a reality, just yet. Here are some of the major hurdles this particular project faces:

Patents: Mobile technology is locked down by patents at every turn, from component design to device dimensions and display technology. More importantly, the companies holding these patents -- such as Samsung, Apple and others -- have hefty legal staffs, large enforcement budgets and a proven appetite for using them. 

It'd be prohibitively expensive and difficult to design a mobile phone with minimal reliance on patented technology. And probably even more costly to license existing patents.

Battery life: While the Ubuntu Touch mobile interface looks fairly slick and has many useful features, app developers often complain that it severely shortens battery life. For many consumers, that can be a deal-breaker -- especially for a pricey phone.

Funding for this campaign is stalling: Although Canonical raised $3.4 million, or more than 10 percent of its goal -- in this campaign's first 24 hours, since then the pace of funding has tapered off significantly.

The Ubuntu Edge is not meant to be a consumer device, but rather a high-end concept device for hardcore Linux users. Canonical won't commit to making the Edge "hackable" -- a core value for most Linux developers.