Thursday, 22 August 2013

Sharpening The Edge

OK. After some pretty hard Edge bashing in the previous few posts, let's see if we can come up with a new Edge proposal which might stand a chance in this day and age (or rather, in next year's day and age). Since I'm not feeling particularly clever naming-wise right now let's give our imaginary product one very dull name: the Sharp Edge. And now, without further ado, to the specs and beyond...

Main Hardware

No need to be overly creative here, either. If we're talking today's specs, I'd say a Samsung Galaxy S4 equivalent will do. If we're talking 2014, let's say it should match Samsung Galaxy S5. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more...


Now we're into the territory Canonical sadly forgot to cover with their original Edge (aka RIP Edge). Yes, they mentioned dock, but didn't show one, and also never mentioned whether it'll be included in the box. Let's correct their mistakes here (apart from the showing bit, that is).

Desktop Dock

So, the main dock, the one which converts Sharp Edge into a desktop system. For this, we need something truly elegant and fitting with the overall design. I'm thinking something along the lines of Nexus device landscape docks. This is because I envision the docked Sharp Edge will still show something on its screen. It can be used as an additional notification area (think clock, calendar, general notifications, photo frame, ...). This is, after all, still a phone, and it's easier to use its own screen for phone-like functions than using the monitor for, say, incoming calls. Since it's presumably also going to be a place where headset is connected it makes even more sense to make it have a bit of a life of its own. Hopefully it will also manage to somehow hide most of the other necessary cables, maybe by using a hidden (i.e., connected by a long thin cable and tucked out of view) "black box" where the screen, keyboard, USB, power, and other ports can be located and plugged into. In any case, we need to specify this in our project and make it look appealing. And include it in the box as standard. This is a high end device, after all.

But, this is not the only dock a Sharp Edge needs. Oh, no. So we go on to...

Laptop Dock

Nothing revolutionary here, really. It's been done before, not least by Motorola. We need to have a laptop-like shell where Sharp Edge slots in and becomes invisible, and we suddenly have a full laptop/netbook. To go one better on what I've seen so far, let's plug our Sharp Edge just so that it becomes the touchpad for our little wonder-dock. And why not? It has a touch screen already. Plus, it could again be used as an extra notification area. Patent lawyers take note: you heard it here first! The rest of the dock can be more or less standard fare. I'd go for between 10 and 12 inches screen size (remember, this is just one other way of converting your Sharp Edge). An additional (large!) battery would be great, too, especially if it could also recharge the one in the phone. A sprinkling of extra ports could come in handy, too. Also, let's make the laptop dock battery removable, and replaceable beneath its own cover (as opposed to making up part of the case). That way we can both have spares, and also try and sell battery-less laptop docks for those on a budget or those who value lightness over operation time (a charger port is a must, of course). This could help with crowdfunding perk selection, too. Finally, let's throw in a nice carry case as standard (but not for backers, let them buy them separately, but in various designs).

Cables, etc

Must not forget cables! First the selection that will be available at launch needs to be made clear to backers. Then, we need to specify a very comprehensive set from the outset (pun intended). Most importantly, the retail package (and the phone perks!) must include at least one of every cable available. First, as a totally new product we can't expect an exactly thriving aftermarket at launch, but it's also a good marketing ploy. Why not get all the possible accessories when you already have all the cables you may need? But seriously, this is a high end product. Not including all required cable is cheap and nasty (I'm looking at you lens manufacturers, the ones which do not include a £10 plastic hood with a £750 lens).

I think this pretty much covers all the tangible bits, so we shall proceed to the intangibles: the software...

The Software

Low Level

At the lowest level we absolutely need an unlocked boot loader, and the one for which source code is available - and easily. I'm thinking in the box, or better still on the device itself. If you're going to sell an open high end devices it needs to be really open. Now, for the corporate and security conscious types: there has to be an option to easily lock down a device so that only an authorised user can unlock it. IT departments and CIOs would not touch Sharp Edge with a barge pole if it didn't have this. But, to repeat: this should not be security through obscurity. Everything should be in the open, and only through that it can be made truly secure.

Operating System(s)

The Sharp Edge should ship with the ability to dual boot at least Android and a flavour of Linux.

As a phone, it should be able to run Android (plain Google version, nothing "customised") and one of the FOSS alternatives. Ubuntu Mobile and Firefox OS are the current candidates, but all the required specs should be made freely available so OSes like Meego, Jolla, and similar can be ported with relative ease, too.

As a desktop/laptop replacement, Sharp Edge needs to be able to dual boot again, and again out of the box. This time it should be with Android (yes, it can be useful as a desktop OS) and one of the Linux flavours. Again, all the required information for porting arbitrary OSes should be made freely available.

Software Extras

Above, I have mentioned spec being freely available so anyone can port anything to the Sharp Edge hardware (and accessories). Let's go one better and offer a full SDK. Maybe even include it in the box (hey, CD printing is cheap). We'll have one already to be able to build the thing in the first place, and it'll mostly be FOSS anyway so why not wrap it nicely, put a bow tie on it, and hand it out to customers? We could even sell a crowdfunding perk of early access to the SDK for developers who see the potential in building apps before launch.

Which all brings me neatly to the main thing, which is how to better structure the crowdfunding campaign...

The Crowdfunding Campaign

I think there's at least a bit of a consensus that the Edge crowdfunding campaign has been mismanaged and misconceived - and that's being generous. So, let's try and not make the same mistakes here. Below are the various perks I think have to be available so that the goodwill potential is maximised.

The Hall of Fame Perk

There should be a prominent page on the project's web site (and not just on the crowdfunding handlers's sites, but the official project site, too) where all the backers will be listed with varying prominence, depending on the perk they purchased. It is probably not enough to have just one level here. I'd suggest starting with absolutely minuscule amounts of, say, $1 for a tiny sized mention, up to maybe even $50 or more for a limited (but not too small!) number of increasingly prominent endorsements. The higher amaounts may also be able to receive a minor tangible gift (think, mouse pads, pens, stickers, ...). In any case, with a good PR campaign, hopefully a lot of people will decide a few bucks is a nice way to chip in, show support, and achieve that all-important warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when one backs a dear cause.

The Merchandise Perks

Now, this is the one where Canonical really got it wrong. We need a lot of those. We should scan the most successful similar projects and model ours on them. Mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, hats, hoodies, stickers, bumper stickers, key rings. You name it, we got it! Every little helps, as the immortal supermarket jingle has it. Some of these should be included with some other perks (Hall of Fame ones, and actual phones, too).

Accessory perks

If the crowdfunding handler allows multiple pledges per backer (and it should or we shouldn't use it) then every single accessory listed above, up to and including spare batteries should be made a separate perk (and there should be accessory bundle perks - several kinds). Remember, we need all the money we can get to fund our project. More importantly, however, our backers need all that we can offer to be able to use our product in the best possible way, and nobody expect to get all the accessories in the box. The more choice we give the more likely there will be a taker/backer.

Phone perks

Here, I'm talking about individual phone perks (well, maybe up to half a dozen in a pack - a family pack?). These should span the spectrum from one individual Sharp Edge retail box to Sharp Edge plus accessories combos (a few well constructed ones), to maybe "family packs" of a few phones in a bundle (up to half a dozen, I'd say). Make all these available at estimated production price (and be open about it!) or a little bit more (and be open about that, too!). Include a few "Limited Edition" runs, too. In any case, avoid the disaster of Canonical Edge phone perks mess.

Developer Perks

Have a few perks customised towards developers. Maybe a number of phones with interesting hardware test points exposed. Some early access to SDK perks. Phone and SDK combo perks. "Developer Edition" phones (think custom snap-on backplates - also a possible accessory perk, and cool design decision). Think like an app developer and let rip.

Corporate perks

A nice idea by Canonical, this one. Have several sizes of these (small, medium, large business). Have various accessory/SDK options. Offer exclusive support contracts. Offer active help in customising and locking down devices.

Blue Sky Perks

Include a few "blue sky" perks. One for a cool $1 million. Go even wilder. You may not get any backers for these, but it'll put a smile on others' faces and that may help them open their wallets a bit more. And who knows, maybe a like of Mike Shuttleworth or Richard Branson decides it's fun to back you (and maybe later invite you to a private chat about your next product - or even this one).

Do you agree we have enough nice perks now? I sure think we do!

At this point, a lot of the people I've interacted with (have been shouted at by, in other words) in the course of commenting on the Edge project would ask where do they look to find my - FOSS or other - ideals. To them I say: look again - it's an open project. As open as can be in fact, including the pricing and marketing. But, it also needs money to become a reality. And to get money from crowdfunding one needs to make it appealing to the crowd to part with their money. And one needs them to go away with a bit more than a warm fuzzy feeling and an emptied wallet (to this effect I'd also choose Kickstarter over Indiegogo, as it doesn't lock people's money unnecessarily until the project is a go).

Now, we just need to go away and have a long hard look and think into the economics and logistics of such a project. Once we've done that, all of the above perks and their (un)limited availability will become clear. And to end this post, this last bit seems to have been sorely missing from the original Edge project. Miscalculated, mismanaged, and mis-planned. Sad, really.

Got to go now. I've Richard Branson on Line 2...

"Oh, high Rich, how's the beard..."

RIP The Edge

It's finally over, and unsurprisingly, the Canonical's Indiegogo campaign for the Edge mobile phone has failed to reach its stated goal of $32 million. As a matter of fact it barely managed a third of it.

I have already written about why I think the campaign was destined to fail, and also - for those who actually parse what they read - what may have been done to prevent disaster. I won't bother here with details, and will instead just offer a quick recapitulation:
  • the price of the phone was just not right (too high)
  • the perks structure was wrong (too few)
  • the idea specs can be changed at 11th hour was misguided
  • the specs were not as good as they were made out to be (for May 2014)
  • the concept was not as revolutionary as it was touted to be
  • the tech press PR was poor and missing
What is surprising, however, is the number of people - and a lot of them non-backers, too - who are proclaiming the whole thing a victory and a success. Their argument revolves around the absolute sum raised which is the largest ever for crowdfunding, but also non-existent as the project has failed. They also somehow translate the 5,000+ phone pre-orders and 25,000+ total backers as indication of into sufficient customer demand which will eventually mean the Edge will become true. Finally, they continue to maintain that the specs and features are so revolutionary that the Edge will remain to be undoubted industry leading product.

First, the absolute sum. It's silly, really. Yes, it's a nice headline figure. However, nobody's going to benefit, and not a cent will reach Canonical or Edge project. Sadly, what everyone's takeaway will be is: $12m is way lower than $32m. Fail.

Second, the backers versus potential customers. This is actually a point that could be debated either way. However, seeing as a phone like this has to attract customers in millions to be priced at anything people will actually pay ($800 production translates into more than a $1000 retail) it would mean that behind every one of the 5,000 pre-orders there's 200 waiting in line or - if we're extremely generous - that behind every single backer there's 40 people waiting to see Edge in the shops. I submit that's an unlikely calculation and probably by a factor of 5 to 10. But I am prepared to be proven wrong (by solid market research).

Third, and final, the specs. Yes, on paper, now, they are impressive. In May 2014? Not so much. Size of RAM is already getting to 3GB in high end devices. The amount of flash storage of 128GB is nice, but I still maintain that current 32GB coupled with a 64GB uSD card is sufficiently close so as not to matter. Finally, the quoted screen size and resolution are decidedly average even by today's standards. And again, it's anyone's guess what devices with what specs will be available in May 2014 or later, and it is later that matters as Edge had no chance of being released in time even if it was funded.

So, am I a naysayer with an agenda - as I have been accused of a few times? Methinks not. As a matter of fact, I'd personally love for a project such as Edge to be a success. Why? Because I'd rush out and buy it, of course. And I'd probably be happy to spend close to a $1,000 for one - if done right. None of which is a reason - in fact all of which are reasons extraordinaire - to openly point out the flaws and weaknesses in a public project like Edge. How else Canonical - and others who may be having similar ideas - could be helped to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes of the past? Surely not by being praised to high heavens and patted on the back for a project that failed at the first hurdle.

Finally, will we see a product like the Edge? I'm sure we will. It's just that someone, somewhere (and not necessarily in the summertime) needs to go back to a drawing board and try again. And maybe this time they should do a little bit more of the prep work before going public. The whole industry does not need another public failure like the Edge.

And it is a failure. Public, and provable.