Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ubuntu (Clutches At The) Edge

There is little I can really add to what I said about this project and its crowdfunding campaign yesterday. However, I believe some things that happened to the Canonical's Ubuntu Edge campaign in the last 24 hours warrant a bit of an update and comment.

So, to quickly recap where the campaign was yesterday at around this time. Basically, once the $600 Ubuntu Edge phone perk sold out the funding came to a screeching halt. Intorducing $830 and two-for-$1400 tiers also didn't seem to have helped. At the clip the funding was going at the time the campaign would have easily failed.

Then, out of the blue, we get the $675 Ubuntu Edge perk!

But not only that. Oh, no. Suddenly there are even more ties that will get you an Ubuntu Edge phone: $725, $775, and even $780, plus the other two from yesterday, the $830, and two-for-$1400.

First of all, if this move is not a clear sign of desperation I don't know what is. And it's not just that a new low tier is introduced. Oh, no. Canonical suddenly feels the need to sound the waters by introducing three more staggered ones in $50 increments. Someone in their marketing department should have walked the plank by now, if you ask me.

Not only this back-paddling (to continue watery metaphors) shows a lack of direction (and probably clue), but it is also insulting to the backers. Every single crowdfunding campaign I've seen so far had very distinct perks for different price points. What Canonical is doing here is blatantly pricing the same thing in six (6!) different tiers. Yes, there may be some minor differences in attached warmness and fuzziness, but whoever's funding at these tiers really wants a decently priced power-phone first, and feelings come a distant third. Which is also nicely illustrated by the fact that once all the $675 phones have gone the funding again slowed to a trickle.

So, what have we learned from this exercise?

Well, for one, that Canonical cannot expect to sell their phone - even as a futuristic concept power phone - for more than around $700 or so. Which means they are unlikely to be able to cover the costs of the 40,000 batch they planned as, by their own (careless) admission, it costs $830 to make one. Now, if they upped the batch size by a factor of at least 10 then the pricing may be good enough for what's obviously market expectation at the moment. Whether it was necessary to go to the trouble (and embarrassment) of a crowdfunding campaign to find this out is very dubious.

And then, we learn (as if it shouldn't have been obvious) that Canonical don't seem to actually know how to build a mobile phone, or at least do it to time scales and price. Promising to deliver such a product in 10 months when the hardware (and to an extent also software) choice has not yet been finalised - and we're talking CPU here, not the choice of power connector - is, to put it as nicely as possible, naive.

Finally, we learn that Canonical can't really do marketing either. For all of the above failings in their project, and even if we forgive initial optimism about how much people care about open source and warm fuzzy feelings as opposed to cheap phones, the whole fiasco has been handled so badly from the PR point of view that it was, at times, painful to watch (think: "we are using people's $30 donations to subsidise $600 phone perks as the phone actually costs $830 to make").

But will the campaign eventually, and despite everything, succeed? I am still doubtful. In the past 24 hours it raised an additional $2 million. If it were possible to maintain this momentum then sure, it would succeed easily. However, it seems that almost half of it was made from the $625 phone perk (1250 units, sold out) plus a bit of the $725 phone perk (200 sold out of 1250 available). The other less-than-production-price tiers sold one and none, respectivelly. The $830 tier sold 13 (thirteen!), and the two-for-$1400 sold 88 out of 2000 on offer. It also seems that in the last couple of hours the funding rate again dropped to between $20 and $30 thousand per hour which is not enough.

The obvious solution for Canonical is to offer more phones below cost price so they actually manage to get those $32 million they think they need, and then try to get some corporate donations or start a new, better thought out, campaign to cover the rest of the cost. On past performance I wouldn't put it past them. After all, in little more than 36 hours they've played around with their perks more than probably all other crowdfunding campaigns put together!

Unfortunately, even if Ubuntu Edge does reach its funding goal, there is still a very serious question of can Canonical actually build it for the May 2014 target? Can they even come close, not yet knowing the fnial hardware? I am extremely doubtful, and wouldn't be surprised to see the target date slip - a lot. I would guesstimate it at six months delay, give or take a month or two.

Could all this have been done differently? Sure!

As many others have suggested, the way to prove this sort of dual boot/docked PC concept it was perfectly fine to take one of the very capable current phones and create a custom ROM doing just that. It might even have been possible for Canonical to get some insider information from one of the big guys and be able to do a proper deep job of it. The only difference to what Ubuntu Edge seems to be offering would have been loss of some (but not a lot) of extra RAM, and, depending on the platform used, loss of some or a lot of extra storage. Yes, 128GB SSD sounds great in a phone, but surely for proof of concept project it would have been just as good to pick a base platform with support for SD cards and be able to plug in up to 64GB (plus any on-board storage already there, likely to be 16 or even 32GB). If that isn't good enough to prove your idea of dual boot Android/Ubuntu OS with the addition of the ability to dock as full Ubuntu Linux desktop I don't know what is. Heck, I'd pay them a not inconsiderable sum if they could turn even my SD cardless Galaxy Nexus into a phone/netbook!

So, let's continue watching where Ubuntu Edge will go, and how it'll go about it. I sure still hope we see it in May next year, but I am sad to say I am not holding my breath.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Ubuntu (Falls Off) Edge...

Ubuntu Edge
...or: How Not To Run a Crowdfunding Campaign.

...or: How Not To Build a Mobile Phone.

If you're in any way into new technology in general, and mobile phones in particular, and especially so if you have a soft spot for FOSS, then you must have already hear of the new Canonical crowdfunding campaign aiming to build a concept mobile phone running both Android (as a phone) and Ubuntu Linux (as a PC when docked) - the Ubuntu Edge.

This post is a rehash of what I already said as a comment on these two Google+ posts with maybe a few additions and/or changes.

The What?

First, let's see what's on offer here. You can (should?) also look at Indiegogo project page and browse general tech web sites, but I'll boil it down for you into its essence.

Ubuntu Edge, as described by Canonical, will be a mobile phone with a 4.5" screen with 1280x720 HD resolution, 4GB RAM, 128GB storage (must be flash), 8MP back-, and 2MP front-facing cameras, "fastest" quad-core CPU, and other more-or-less usual and expected gubbins. All of this will be available to generous backers at $600, oh! wait!, $830, oh! wait again! 2 for $1400 - next May (aka May 2014, aka in a year's time - we'll get to that bit of maths later). This thing will dual boot Ubuntu OS for mobiles and Android (versions unspecified) and turn into a full fledged Ubuntu Linux desktop when docked. Sweet!

But wait! Don't you smell something fishy here? OK, maybe not fishy, but distinctly half-baked. Just look - and this is corroborated by interviews given to the tech press - they don't yet even know what CPU they will use (apart from it being quad-core). Now, for your average mobile phone buyer this may not be ringing any alarm bells. Even those who (think they) are in the know usually only care about the CPU when it is listed against the others in the benchmark tests. However, there are two extremely serious issues with this uncertainty.

The Why?

The first one is potentially a very serious problem for those planning to make a lot of use of the docked desktop experience. Here, the choice between Intel (or AMD) and an ARM CPU can make a world of difference. The former would be much preferable since pretty much every single Linux application is ported to that architecture. Not so with ARM! So, if Canonical eventually decide on ARM CPU you may find your desktop experience potentially severely limited. Would this be an acceptable trade-off for increased batery life (and maybe a tad lower price) is something only you can decide. But you can't because you don't know, and Canonical isn't telling. Now hand over your $600/$830/$700-if-you-buy-two, please.

The second issue with this has to do with the overall success, or at least timeliness, of the whole project. Trust me, because I have been there (and in fact still am): ten months is probably an absolute minimum to complete a new mobile phone project from full design to manufacture, and that is when you already know the key design choice - the CPU. If you leave the choice of CPU until later (apparently "the best available before going to manufacture") you will not complete your project on time. This is because "going to manufacture" is usually only weeks away from "stacking the shelves". If Canonical manages to integrate an unknown part in such a short time frame then they should be in the business of consulting for the big guys, not building concept phones (or Linux distributions, for that matter).

The worst thing here: if Canonical actually knew which CPU they're going with they'd have absolutely no reason not to name it in the proposed spec. Which means they don't, which in turn means they have less then ten months (and less and less, by the day) to integrate an unknown part. A tall task if ever there was one. And don't be fooled into thinking that maybe they already know the type but are dithering and waiting for a faster model. Even the change in speed ripples out to potentially different choices and design of other parts of the phone (in simple terms think at least RAM speeds). So, here we already have seeds of failure and they seem to be being watered quite prodigiously.

And now to the other big part of the almost assured failure of this project: the pricing structure of the backers' "perks".

At the project launch you had the following options: $30 for a warm fuzzy feeling and a mention on the web site, $600 for the phone itself, $10,000 for one of the first 50 numbered phones (eh? who on Earth wants the first 50 off the production line? I thought they were usually ritually destroyed to ward off bad luck), $80,000 you get a cool 100 phones and some corporate perks, too.

After a blazing 12 hours or so, the perks structure suddenly changed: $20 for that same warm fuzzy feeling, $830 for a phone, $1400 for two phones (hip-hip?), and the other two from above.

When questions started pouring, someone from the Canonical camp (who shall remain nameless, but does earn the not-the-sharpest-tool title) admits that the production cost of an Ubuntu Edge phone is in excess of $800 and that the suckers, er, $30 backers were used to subsidise the $600 backers before Canonical decided it's time for people to actually pay for the phone they will (not) get. And they tried to sweeten the new deal by offering two-for-$1400 perk. Now, if this wasn't a stupid thing to do in the first place (change the rules mid game), it sure must make those suckers, er, original $30 backers feel like, mmm, suckers, maybe? Bad Canonical, bad.

The Where (is the money)?

Now, you know what happened next? Of course you knew! The funding ground to a screeching halt. That's what happened, and for very good reasons. Everyone with a $600 burning a hole in their pocket is happy to place a free bet and maybe get a cheap well-specced phone in ten months' time. On the other hand, there are not many people who will stake $830 (or even $700 if they found a buddy) to maybe get a phone not necessarily better than something else that may be around in a year's time. Don't get fooled by Canonical's hype machine (only just bragging about $100,000 an hour funding rate after 36 hours). What happened in reality was: zero to $3 million in 12+ hours when all the $600 perks have been taken, then around $750 thousand! in the following 24+ hours (as of this minute). What I see here, rather than a steady $100k/h funding speed which would comfortably reach the $32 million goal, is $250k/h in the first 12 hours, followed by a much more pedestrian $32k/h for the next 24 hours. To me this is a tenfold decrease in funding speed. At this clip, in the remaining 29 days we'll have raised another $22 million, making the campaign a failure, raising just over $25 million out of $32 required. And that is if even this puny momentum is retained for the remainder of the month.

The Wherefore (art thou common sense)?

By all accounts this is such an ill thought out campaign that it is quite painful to watch it (anyone thinking of slow motion car crashes?). This is, of course, unless Canonical never planned for it to succeed in the first place, but use it as a free marketing and awareness raising exercise, maybe even a sounding board for both themselves and the industry at large. This latter because they also allegedly "briefed" all the major players in the mobile phone arena on both the project and the planned campaign. That they still went ahead with it after talking to the big guys means either they (Canonical) are really stupid and didn't carefully read the minutes of those meetings or the big guys happily pulled wool over their (Canonical's) eyes so they get some free marketing/market research. Whichever it was it seems astronomically unlikely the big guys thought that the project so ill thought out could succeed in the time frame allowed. Or, more likely, none of the big guys actually want a FOSS dual boot/desktop when docked phone to succeed - especially not one they didn't make - so they just smiled and patted Shuttleworth on the back and sent him home to fail in front of the gaping audience that are the mobile phone buyers and enthusiasts.

Now, don't get me wrong. Personally, I'd love for such a phone to be made. Heck, I'd probably be the first in line to buy one. After all, I'm not running a Linux-only shop (but not Ubuntu Unity or Gnome 3, mind!) and Android only mobile shoplet for nothing. And of course I wish Canonical all the very best in building Ubuntu Edge. Once they do, and manage to go for more than a puny 40,000 build run so the price becomes more in line with other similar devices, I'd also probably be the first one to beat the path to their door (provided I can get rid of Unity on the desktop - it is still just dire). But, as this Indiegogo project was conceived, both technically and in funding, I just cannot see it happening. First, I don't think it'll reach its $32 million goal - not by a long stretch. And then, I also just can't imagine how they can meet May 2014 shipping target from where they are now. And every day they miss it is a day which makes your $600/$830/$700-if-you-buy-two phone worth less and less so even thinking about the possibility of delays (and these are likely to be months rather than weeks or days) makes you less and less likely to become a big supporter, and those $20 donations just won't do the trick.

The Afterthought

So, in conclusion: if you really have those hundreds you don't know what to do with (which is, let's be frank, unlikely) by all means sign up for a nice phone-to-be. Just don't be too disappointed when in a month's time you realise it just ain't gonna happen, at least not with this campaign. So you may want to either put your hundreds in a bank and wait to see what'll really be on offer come May 2014, or spend them on something else which will give you immediate gratification. And immediate gratification is not to be sneered at, IMO.

Good luck, Canonical and Ubuntu Edge!

There's also one other cheeky bit of Canonical's marketing: the hype they're beating up is all about how much better the specs of Ubuntu Edge are than anything else available. Now, stupid humans we evolved to be, we tend latch on the key phrase "much better", rather than also taking into account that almost unsaid "available" to which we need to add a totally unuttered yet crucial "now". Worst thing, the statement, even when fully parsed, unsaid bits and all, is in fact true. Ubuntu Edge is in fact (or rather will be, or better still, could be) much better than everything else in the market - now. But, and this is a very big but, will it still be so much better than everything else in the market in May 2014? Anyone has a crystal ball handy? No, thought not. Even worse if you also managed to parse May 2014 into "months later than May 2014" because of uncertain hardware spec (and I haven't even mentioned unknown OS versions!). Who's to say other big (or even some newcomer small) guys won't come up with something at least comparable and probably at a similar or even lower price point (big guys can order much bigger production runs - 4 million phones are considerably cheaper to make than 40 thousand). So, why not put this Post Scriptum into the post proper above? To which I respond: why add insult to injury? 

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Balancing Act

I took my OM-D and the Lumix 100-300mm to the zoo!

They liked the experience very much, and so did I.

(OK, I also took my 16 month old, my sexy lady partner wife - and her mother. They liked it, too. However, for the purposes of kit-talk and this post this is irrelevant, and you won't hear any more about them.)

So, apart from the fact that both the OM-D and the 100-300mm liked the field trip, how did they fare and - more importantly - how did I fare and what the shots were like?

Here, on the right, is one example I'm particularly proud of (you may not be, but I was shooting for me). Do note, this was handheld, in a dark giraffe stable, on a bright sunny day with the light coming more or less entirely from the back and the right of the lady pictured. The photo has been ever so slightly adjusted for light and colour.

Now, for some impressions and advice:

First and foremost: if you plan such an outing yourself do everyone a favour and bring a tripod or at least a monopod. It is not so much that it's impossible to get a clear shot handheld, but it tends to be both difficult and tiring. And, of course, with better support you'll be able to choose more favourable shooting parameters overall. And you'll get clearer shots, too.

Second: if you're taking a toddler with you try to also bring a pushchair! I can vouch that carrying an OM-D with 100-300mm fitted on one shoulder, and a toddler on another is not fun. Juggling the latter from arm to arm in the process - even less so. So, either have a pushchair (for either!) or be very nice to your sexy lady partner wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/mother-in-law and have them take the brunt of the carrying (of either). Seriously.

Above is another nice example of OM-D and 100-300mm in action, this time taking a candid shot of a meerkat in repose. Again, handheld, in somewhat diffused light (haze/part cloud), with some slight light and colour adjsutments.

Oh, and back to the toddler/sexy lady partner wife issue: do not expect to have time and space to plan and frame your shots in any detail. Your best bet is to have visited the target area at least once before and then plan the shots at least two enclosures in advance and gently guide your company and their actions so you actually have at least a fleeting chance of getting the shot you wanted. Like here on the left where said company was craftily sent on their way to the next enclosure so I can get this safari-like shot of a herd of giraffes on the Hampshire grassland. This was fully zoomed in at 300mm, and ever so slight light and colour correction and teeny-weeny touch of unsharp mask. Shame about the distance and the hazy day, though.

Finally, a word about balance and overall handling of the combination...

While, as you can see in the photo at the top, the OM-D and 100-300mm combination does look ever so slightly silly I submit that pretty much any camera, DSLRs included, looks a teeny bit silly with the very long zoom lens (and I'm not even talking about pro wildlife/sports ones which would look teeny-weeny silly on a Sherman tank, too). Yes, it hangs from your shoulder like nobody's business and knocks the living daylights out of your kidneys, hips, elbows - and most passers-by. But, in actual use there is nothing unnatural in holding the camera and the lens and zooming out all the way. It sits there in front of you, if held properly, just like it should and as you can hopefully see above manages to take more than decent images even handheld and in a rush.

For that matter, I have also found it performs surprisingly well as a portrait lens, too! The only trick is you have to be able (or willing) to back out a looong way since the 100-300mm in the 100mm position on an OM-D is effectively a 200mm lens which a) will not focus from less than 1.5 metres, and b) has such a narrow field of view that you need to be much further away for a chance of a decent head and shoulders shot. However, once you've backed out enough (and without falling into a gaping manhole - or a leopard's enclosure) you will get a marvellous portrait of your toddler and/or that sexy lady partner wife. I certainly wouldn't recommend this as standard use, but if you already have this lens mounted and can't be bothered to swap it - or the camera - why not?

As the last few words, and to accompany this decent enough but poorly cropped and marred by the enclosure fence shot of a couple of zebras cooling their arses but tanning their faces, a thought about whether it makes sense to mount the 100-300mm (or Olympus 75-300mm, for that matter) when doing travel/tourist photography (think family holiday)...

The 100-300mm is a heavy lens (and the Nikon counterpart probably too, even if it is a bit smaller and lighter). The first question you want to ask yourself is: when you're spending a (long) day sightseeing (think Paris, for example) do you really want to carry such a monster on your camera or even just in your bag (out of which you'll probably never take out if you're honest with yourself). And then, even if you decide that you absolutely have to have that shot of your sexy lady partner wife peering into middle distance from the top of the Eiffel tower while you are clicking away at the bottom, even if you absolutely have to have such a shot - you'd probably only ever put the 100-300mm on for that one shot. For everything else you'll most likely want the flexibility of wide/zoom combination, something like the Olympus 14-150mm lens. As I discussed before, you may even be better off taking your E-PM1 (or similar) with the Olympus 45mm/1.8 mounted for street/portrait/general fooling around photography, while you put the 14-150mm on your OM-D for everything else. The former will not make a significant bulge in your bag - or weigh you down too much, and the latter will rest happily around your neck and let you capture most everything you want. Heck, you may end up not taking the E-PM1/45mm combination out of your bag unless you end the day in the deepest recesses of some dodgy Parisienne tavern and have absolute need for that 1.8 aperture.

So, in overall conclusion: do get that Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 lens. It's at least as good (if not better) than the Nikon (and you'll need the Power O.I.S. on any Panasonic body) - and it's almost half the price to boot. However, do also get a good tripod (or at least a monopod), too. And take it out with you. And use it. Just, please, please, please -pretty please - do not create monstrosity like this one:

Do make sure you disable Power O.I.S. on the 100-300mm when mounted on an Olympus body. Olympus bodies have their own image stabilisation and trust me when both are in use at the same time the only thing they do is vigorously fight each other and it is absolutely 100% not possible to get a shot. Any shot. Unless you call a blurry mess with ghost images a shot. I don't.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Hilariously Unbalanced!

Have a look at the photo to the left! Just have a look!

If it didn't make you laugh then your sense of humour must have been surgically removed at birth. Go speak to your mum or the delivery staff.

No, I have not conjured up a silly camera/lens combination. This is a perfectly valid and working Micro Four Thirds setup.

What you are seeing, if you haven't recognised it yet, this is an Olympus E-PM1 camera body attached to a Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 lens. Yes, you read it right: a camera body attached to a lens. To say that this lens is attached to this camera would be ridiculous and, I'm afraid, factually incorrect.

Now, tell me: how is one supposed to shoot with a setup like this? I have tried, and I have to say that - after I have stopped laughing - it felt utterly ridiculous. I just meant to say that the balance was all wrong, but in all honesty I couldn't detect any balance to speak of in the first place. And that is with the lens at the widest 100mm position, too!

Now consider the photo on the right, the lens now at 300mm.

How ridiculous is THAT?!

Can you even imagine how it felt in the hand? No, I guess not. You're probably a sensible person and wouldn't try this in the first place.

Ah, I hear some of you asking why did I not just use a tripod?

But you see, the tripod mount is on the camera body. How sturdy and wide legged would a tripod need to be to not topple over, or at least not allow the lens to sway around freely like a candle in the wind?

A tripod collar! Use a tripod collar! I hear some shouting...

But the Panasonic lens doesn't come with one, you see. And nor does the similar Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 lens which is of comparable size, if not weight.

So, here we have what one gets when one chooses to go for as small a Micro Four Thirds camera one can find (and same goes for other compact system mirror-less cameras) - a monstrosity. I actually wouldn't mind if this was just a visual monstrosity. I could live with that. But this monstrosity is totally unusable in any reasonable sense of the word.

Luckily, I have my trusty OM-D which is just about usable with this lens, and there are other Micro Four Thirds bodies available which could make more sense than the E-PM1. But, now I have the body and the lens to hand, I just had to show you what was I talking about when I first griped and moaned about this issue.

So, now you have it, all nicely illustrated - and in colour. A couple of thousands of words worth, eh?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

New Best Friends...

...or how to shoot like a pro for £600.

Having now played even more with the Olympus E-PM1 and various Micro Four Thirds lenses, I can announce that, apart from the already mentioned Panasonic 14mm/2.5, there is one more lens that is a very good, if not exactly perfect, fit for this camera.

As you cannot see in the photo to the left, but should be able to see in the photo just below, this is the Olympus 45mm/1.8. In itself, this lens is a great choice for portrait work. Of course, you may prefer the Olympus 75mm/1.8 one for that - if you can afford it, but it also falls way out of my proposition of a £600 kit combo. And, the 45mm lens can also be quite handy for street photography, too.

So, in my kit combo, you now have the E-PM1 body - currently £220 new, including the 14-42mm kit lens, the Panasonic 14mm/2.5 wide angle lens - currently £200 new, and the Olympus 45mm/1.8 - currently selling at £220 new. Add this all up and you end up with £640 - and a spare lens. Now, you can either sell the 14-42mm kit lens and recoup anywhere from £40 to £60 (if you're lucky), or you can keep that one, too. Who knows, you may decide at some point to take the E-PM1 out as point-and-shoot with just the kti lens on. You won't get any depth of field control to speak of, but at least you won't have to carry a spare lens in your pocket, and will have the convenience of a medium zoom.

If you wanted you could now claim that 28mm equivalent of the Panasonic 14mm lens is not exactly what a pro might choose to shoot as either wide angle or a standard prime, but for me that's both close enough to the lovely 35mm equivalent, and at the same time gives that little bit of width to play around either with cropping or wider composition. If you now tell me that for a pro the only true standard prime is 50mm equivalent, and that thou shalt not crop - I'll tell you to go away and continue being a pixel peeping Tom hung up on numbers and lore. Same if you tell me that the only true portrait lens is neither 150mm nor 90mm equivalent, but 120mm or 180mm or whatever you may like in between. After all, we're talking £600 worth of kit "pro" pro (and even less if you go for second hand or just shop around).

Finally, to illustrate what kind of quick and dirty winners you may be able to score with this combo here's one I took with just a second's thought and mostly because the E-PM1 with Olympus 14mm on was to hand while I was lying down on the floor playing with my 15 month old. The photo has not been edited in any way, and the scene wasn't staged. This is straight after a 15 month old left the scene, and straight out of the camera (and no flash - of course). Enjoy!

Will I be abandoning my Olympus O-MD for this combo? Of course not! But it is a viable alternative for when you want to travel even lighter or you have concerns someone may steal and/or damage your kit.