$20 Million Short, What’s Next For Ubuntu?

It’s the final day of the crowdfunding campaign for Canonical’s all-in-one PC and smartphone concept device the Ubuntu Edge, and it’s clear that the $32 million fundraising target is still out of reach–and that means the concept phone will not be produced. FastCo.Labs talks to Mark Shuttleworth, Founder of Ubuntu and Canonical, about what happens next.

$20 Million Short, What’s Next For Ubuntu?

Ubuntu fans argue that the Edge crowdfunding campaign is already a game changer, despite reaching less than half of its funding goal. After all, it has brought to the forefront the concept of convergent computing. It’s garnered Ubuntu big backers like Bloomberg LP, and it’s sparked plenty of praise in the tech press.


But since the campaign was an all-or-nothing venture, there will not be an Ubuntu Edge to speak of–at least for the foreseeable future. So the question remains: What’s next for Ubuntu and its quest for a share of the mobile market? How do they recuperate from the blow of the failed campaign while capitalizing on all this momentum?

We sat down with Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s founder, to talk about the release of Ubuntu Touch, convergence, government surveillance, and competition from Android and Windows 8.

Given that the Indiegogo campaign looks like it’s going to fail, what’s the next step for Ubuntu Touch without the Ubuntu Edge?

We’re on-track from a software engineering point of view to develop a first release of just a mobile-focused Ubuntu in October. So that’ll be a 1.0 of the phone version of Ubuntu. We’re having pretty detailed conversations with various manufacturers and carriers. The public portion of that is in the Carrier Advisory Group, which was formed a month or two ago, and which we closed at the end of July to new members. I think we ended up with about a dozen carriers in there, including guys like T-Mobile, Verizon, Smartfren in Indonesia, and China Unicom. So a pretty good range of carriers.


We were focused on getting our 1.0 into the hands of manufacturers, with a view to shipping something based either on that or the midpoint of the next cycle in early 2014. And so as much as everyone on the team really wanted to see us kind of skipping a few generations on the hardware cycle and going straight to where we think things need to go–which is convergence–there’s still plenty of work for us to do, just getting onto mainstream mid- and high-end phones. They’re not PCs in your pocket [like the Ubuntu Edge], but they’ll still run Ubuntu itself beautifully from a phone experience point of view.

Looking at what the tech press has been saying, there have been some people saying that if the Edge campaign doesn’t succeed, it might be curtains for Canonical or at least for your involvement with Ubuntu. Is there any truth to that?

No, there’s absolutely no truth to that. I would characterize the Edge as a bit of a labor of love on the side. Our mission is still Ubuntu. What was interesting about the Edge was that we were almost on behalf of our hardware partners digging into hardware innovation, crowdsourcing–not just crowdfunding, but crowdsourcing–tapping into that spirit of saying, “Well, what’s interesting? What could work?” And in a way that maybe the more conservative, traditional hardware industry isn’t able to do. But I saw that as something that we could do to advance the state-of-the-art across the whole industry, rather than something central to Canonical.

And for me personally I kind of fell in love. With the Edge, I thought, “Wow, we could really move things forward if this device comes off.” And our institutional commitment to convergence isn’t really limited to one device. It’s the whole ethos of our design and the user experience. A great deal of the engineering has gone into the Ubuntu mobile OS and has been designed to line up perfectly with both of PC and cloud offerings. And our interest in that topic of convergence is, in a sense, much broader than the Edge because all of the pieces of Ubuntu essentially are lined up around that idea that they would all converge. And it’s noteworthy that the OS that we would put on the Edge is the same OS that’s going onto the HP Moonshot ARM devices. So you’ve got data centers being reinvented around ARM silicon and it’s powered by exactly the same OS we were proposing to put on the Edge. So I think that this convergence story continues. It’s sort of like the grand unification–as you increase the imagery level, there’s forces lined up and become, becomes different faces of the same underlying thing. And as we increase the capability of CPUs from mobile to embedded to PC to surveys suddenly it becomes I think economically interesting to look at using exactly the same platform for personal computing.


So there’s no chance of any OEM being interested in producing a convergent device at this stage?

Well, you know even this week we were chasing up some outreach we got from a couple of interesting angles. We’ve had folks–pretty senior folks–from a couple of major companies reaching out saying, “Hey this is really interesting. I’d like us to figure out if we can do something together around it.” And yet, we haven’t had a breakthrough that essentially could leapfrog us much closer to where we could green-light the project and go into production. At this stage, I think it’s a very outside chance that one of those threads turns into the sort of commitment that would get us to open up in terms of green-lighting a convergent device.

So to look at Moore’s Law and the historical trend of those devices, we would see something like the Edge be real in two to three years, just in terms of the RAM, CPU power, connectivity, and so on. And then there are some things in there which are not commercial-driven, like the screen technology and the battery technology we’re interested in. But leaving that aside, just in terms of the capabilities required for convergence, we think high-end phones will get there on their own in two or three years’ time, and the Edge was just going to short-circuit that to nine months. That would have been great.


In some ways, it seems like convergence was the killer feature of the Edge. So how do you see Ubuntu Touch stacking up and gaining a market share in the already saturated mobile market?

Right. I think that’s a fair question. I think the short-term answer is that we need to find an audience that really wants something clean and simple and beautiful. In our conversations with carriers, they identified about 20% to 25% of their users who insist on having a smartphone but don’t actually use it as a smartphone in the sense that they don’t use a lot of apps and they don’t really download content. Their focus is just upgrading on the contract to a newer phone.

For carriers, that’s a bit of a problem because those customers aren’t driving a lot of data traffic, which is a big contributor to the profitability of mobile contract carriers. And so, before us, there is something of an opportunity because those are users who are quite possibly interested in having something stylish, beautifully put together that is relatively new from an app portfolio point of view. So in the short term, we think that’s the opportunity, and we’re working with carriers to get Ubuntu adopted with that audience. It can lift the high-end device aimed at the mainstream audience that’s usually app-centric.

In the longer term, the real question I think is whether we can build the app portfolio. I think we have a pretty diverse story now in that we’ll have quite a few I think of the top 50 apps. The vendors are quite excited about Ubuntu and they say that they will support Ubuntu. But for the long tail, we have to provide a very good mechanism for developers to port their application. For HTML5 apps that’s very straightforward and we’ll have a large portfolio of those on Day 0. The next thing we have to work on is people porting their apps from Android. And I think we’re in a pretty good position there because a lot of Android apps are actually developed on Ubuntu desktop. And so we connect very easily for those developers to support both Ubuntu and Android with the same Java code base. There’s work to be done there, but I think in the medium- to long-term, it’s all about apps. There’s sufficient momentum in the Android market, which is close enough to Ubuntu that we can make it easy for those developers to target both Android and Ubuntu with the same code base.


That’s interesting to hear because I know Canonical has also shied away from fully supporting Android apps on Ubuntu.

Yeah, there’s a sort of nuance to that. What we don’t want to try to do is to make Ubuntu appear to be Android to the app. In other words, we don’t want to try and do what BlackBerry did, which is to say, “Well, you can just throw an Android app at it and it’ll work.” And the reason for that is really user experience; it would feel like a fish out of water. You can do that. You can make an app run. But it’s sort of weird. Whereas the other way to do it is to say, “If you want to support Ubuntu, it’ll be a little bit of work. You have to understand the Ubuntu user experience and the conventions. And then you have to think about how to express some aspect of your application in that language, as it were.” Then the implementation of that will still be relatively easy, right? It’s the same code base in Java, but there’s an additional set of APIs that you use, and you conditionally either use these APIs for Ubuntu or those APIs for Android. That’s work that still has to be done because we didn’t scope that work for the 1.0 of the product–right now our core focus is getting in with carriers to an audience that isn’t very app-centric.

What do you think is compelling about Unity as a user interface that might compel a new audience to switch over to Ubuntu?


Well, for example benchmark testing of Unity versus Windows 8 is very successful. People mentally have a much clearer idea of what’s where with Unity than Windows 8. So I mean, that’s a very successful find. I can appreciate what Microsoft’s trying to do, because we’ve done it ourselves. Conceiving a new complete user experience is pretty challenging. And I’m pretty proud of the fact that we extend well ahead of them on based on user testing in terms of navigating and being productive.

In terms of the real sell, a lot of what we put into Unity was specifically to be able to run phones, tablets, and PCs together elegantly. So that becomes an easier argument to make once we have phones and tablets running it, right now we only have PCs. So I think the real value of the approach that we’ve taken has yet to fully sort of show itself. Once it’s on our phones, our tablets, and PCs, then the coherence of that set of devices will I think stand apart from the crowd.

The Edge crowdfunding campaign obviously gained a lot of attention for Ubuntu and helped demonstrate demand and credibility for an Ubuntu-powered device. Some have commented that it’s win-win for Canonical even if the campaign fails. Was that part of your strategy from the outset, knowing you’d get a takeaway even if the Edge isn’t produced?

No. I certainly didn’t set out to fail. We set out to do it properly. We were very mindful of the fact that a lot of other hardware-oriented projects have found themselves in the awkward situation that they succeed in the campaign, and then they realize they’ve underestimated a lot of the costs. And of course, the absolute number ends up sounding like a very high number. But every device made has material costs unlike making a movie or writing a book or producing a computer game where once you covered the development tasks, the individual units themselves have very high margins.


And nevertheless, I think as a concept device, it really would help people crystallize in their minds the idea that a phone should be the center of their personal computing, in a very profound sort of way. For most people, smartphones now are kind of essential companion devices. You couldn’t get by without it. You absolutely have to have it. And I think the real beauty of the Edge is it got people thinking about the phone as the center of the whole personal device ecosystem. There are these two sort of fundamental sort of forces at work. One is everything is becoming smart, right? Everything is becoming attractive. Every piece of electronics is kind of growing a smart stream, right? And on the other hand, this idea that, well, in fact, you only really want to have your credentials in one place. You don’t want to re-create your credentials in tons of different places. And the truth out of I think operating approaches to that, one is to say, “Well let’s use this kind of convergence idea, this idea that the phone can really drive everything.” Or this ChromeOS type of idea, the idea that everything is just powered by the web. And so when you log in to any device, you’re suddenly logged into the cloud and have a similar experience across multiple devices. I think those are two both very powerful ideas. I think there are both advantages and disadvantages, notably in a PRISM era. If all of your devices are dependent on the cloud, well then you have no confidentiality whatsoever.

Right, with the news of PRISM and NSA surveillance, there’s been an upsurge of interest in open source as a way to maintain privacy. Do you share the opinion that open source is better for an individual’s privacy and security and do you see Ubuntu benefiting from that increased interest in open source?

Well, it is a tantalizing promise, right? There’s lots of critical research that shows a higher baseline quality of code when it is subject to public scrutiny. I think it is also being naïve to think that the mere open source-ness of something is a guarantee of security. Particular tools depend very much on practices associated with them.

We’ve actually long been asked to do a human rights version of Ubuntu, which guarantees the confidentiality of information stored on the disk and so on. The problem with that is it’s very hard to imagine a way of doing that that couldn’t potentially be defeated. And the thought of giving someone a false sense of security is very disconcerting. Personally, I use Ubuntu and I know a lot of security-conscious people who use open source as a matter of principle. So I think like all things, it would be wrong to hold up a panacea of perfect security just through open source. But I think if you are serious about this stuff, then yes, you probably are a fairly heavy user of open source.


Looking ahead, what’s your goal for Ubuntu in the next two to three years?

On the client side, I think it’s clear: We have to make a material impact in the mobile scene. Internally, there’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction that Ubuntu is on more than 20% of Dell PCs globally. We’ve celebrated a critical launch of Ubuntu on HP PCs in South America, for example. There’s a real sense that we’ve cracked the goal that was set in the open source community for having an open source platform become mainstream.

For myself, I think we have to be extremely mindful of the fact that the future is very, very dominated by mobility and by touch. So I feel a victory only in a nominal sense, to become a major player on the desktop just as the desktop itself is fading from its central position as the backbone of personal computing. So that’s why so much of my attention and the team’s attention is focused on mobile, because we know we have to be right at the center of that unification of personal computing.

Smartphones are extraordinary. They’re a sort of anything machine; you can do anything on them. But at the same time, increasingly, people say that they don’t expect that they’ll only carry a smartphone around. The reason for that is within the first five years of smartphones, people were astonished at how much they could do on a phone that they had not previously thought they could do on a phone. And there’s a natural tendency I think to extrapolate that, “So therefore, in five years’ time, I think I’ll only carry a phone.” And if you look at the statistics of people we asked the question over the years, the number of people who think they will only be carrying a phone in the future is dropping. And the reason for that I think is that folks are realizing that doing email on the phone is only good for certain kinds of email, And for real productivity you need the traditional form factors of a bigger screen and a keyboard.


And so the key question then becomes how you combine those ideas, how you give people mobility the best, so they’re immediately attracted to, but also the productivity of those bigger form factors. And so that’s what’s at the heart of convergence.

So to answer, it’s a big game. And it would be trite to be blustery and say, “Well, let’s charge into this territory and kick some ass.” But I think we have a very credible offering. We’re really looking forward to the 1.0 of the mobile story in October. And in two years’ time, if we have made a consumer impact in the phone market, if we can take 15% or 20% of the Android share, then I think we’ll be making a tremendous difference in the industry.

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.