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.