Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Bit About Ubuntu Edge

A couple days ago, Canonical announced a crowd funding campaign for the Ubuntu Edge, a phone sized device that is able to function as a phone but is firmly designed to be a PC replacement. Just in case someone stumbles on this page after finding such crappy reporting as this, here is the deal with Ubuntu Edge as I see it: The Ubuntu Edge is about shaping the future.

Now, it is no secret that I like Canonical, one of the only companies fighting for (and throwing money at) GNU/Linux on the desktop. Frankly, despite recent missteps in quality control and their tendency to not go with 100% Free Software, I think they are doing more for the Free Software Movement than basically anybody else out there. But I have to say that Ubuntu Edge, and it's associated crowd funding campaign, is a particular point of brilliance for the company.

Canonical has been working for the last few years on something they call converged computing. The idea is to have every consumer electronic centered around a screen controlled on a very fundamental level by one device (one device that happens to run nearly 100% Free Software). As most of you are aware, every piece of consumer electronics out there has a small, typically underpowered, computer in it. The Ubuntu Edge vision is to take all of those computers out of the electronics and simply have the manufacturers build screens with an HDMI port and power supply attached. For all of the computation, something like the Ubuntu Edge will handle it.

The way I see Canonical's end game vision is something much like the technology seen in the Total Recall remake from a few years ago. In this movie, people have technology that they carry with them (actually implanted inside their body) and may use any piece of glass as a display for that technology by pressing their hand against it. Canonical's vision is similar. Computational devices will be mobile, private, secure, personal device that you carry with you while displays will be stationary, plentiful, pseudo-public devices you hook into when needed. In such a world, every hotel room you rent, every office, every coffee shop table, and every room in your house will have a display and input devices (keyboard and mouse, or touchscreen) and a cradle to place your "phone" into. The way I see Ubuntu Edge is the way it is presented, as a taste of the future.

But that is not entirely fair. There is one place where the Ubuntu Edge fits perfectly in the current world. If you have a computer at home and a computer at work (or if you have one laptop that you use for both and you lug it back and forth), the Ubuntu Edge makes a lot of sense for you. You should think of the Ubuntu Edge as a PC tower and UPS that fits in your pocket. There is no need to sync between different disk drives because you bring your drive with you. If you have ever emailed a file to yourself, or left your computer on at home so that you would have SSH access to it in case you needed it, or if you simply have so much data that you cannot store it in something like Dropbox or some analogous cloud file storage, an Ubuntu Edge like system is a great fit. In addition, there is no need to worry about software differences between your applications and files (no Excel 07 can't read Excel 09 XML files file problems) or incompatibilities during software development because you bring the hardware and software with you. If you have ever wasted a few hours or days configuring a new computer or tweaking a computers configuration, Ubuntu Edge seems like a useful platform. Canonical isn't the first company to sniff around this idea, but they seem to be the closest to actually achieving this.

An extra benefit of something like Ubuntu Edge is that it solves many problems that people that value freedom, privacy, and freedom from vendor lock-in have felt mounting. Ubuntu Edge resonates very well with us freedom loving people as it is a solution that is centered around a well standardized interface. It means that anybody can use this with whatever device they like. It is of course not lost on me that this device will be close to a completely freedom respecting device. There will probably be proprietary device drivers, but I expect that user land will be Free as in Freedom. This also resonates with us people that support competition in the market. Any time we have a technology where any new inventor can enter the market and leverage it for their invention, my free market loving self smiles a little bit. Standardized interfaces are great for competition (e.g. see the Internet).

Even further, this also resonates very well with us privacy loving people and people that haven't drank the "cloud" Kool-Aid. The current solution to the woes of syncing multiple computers (be they PCs, tablets, phone, or whatever) is to have something like Dropbox shuffle files around. This is actually a pretty crappy solution, if we are being honest. Don't get me wrong, it is good for the world we have constructed, but it is far from optimal. For example, on any system that I am familiar with, it is not possible to sync installed applications via something like Dropbox.

Of course there is nothing wrong with cloud services in principle, and in many instances they are extremely convenient for transferring files to friends. I'm not proposing that we move away from Internet services in total, but I think there is an argument to be made for only using Internet services for things that need to be Internet services. The problem is that cloud services are run by corporations and corporations only have allegiances to their share holders and, if required by law, the government that they operate under. In addition, in the world we currently live in corporations tend to also have a disturbing level of control over "mobile" devices. In this data syncing/sharing scheme there are many points of weakness when it comes to privacy. By buying into the "cloud", we have transitioned from the normal state where files that are not shared with others are basically safe into a world where our files are more vulnerable (to either attackers, corporations, or government agencies) because we have implicitly shared them in order to sync them. Something like Ubuntu Edge is a way out of this, it is a solution for many of the problems that the cloud was designed to solve. If my files are local (i.e. they are in my pocket) and third party devices that I interact with are nothing more than a screen with no general purpose processing capabilities, I have much less to worry about.

All of these aspects packed together makes this a pretty awesome project. But now the brilliant part. By making this a crowd funding campaign, Canonical has made it clear to the consumers what is possible. I have been hearing rumblings about a system like this for years, but perhaps the ordinary people out there have not. This is certainly a way to get the word out. On the flip side, this tells the manufacturers that there are people that are willing to pay money for something like this. Just the fact that this crowd funding campaign existed, regardless of whether it is actually funded, will affect the trajectory of technology in the future. This is a win-win scenario and it is brilliant, pure and simple. I would love to see Canonical make their goal and make their phone, but in my estimation, they have already changed the world for the better.

So, no, buying an Ubuntu Edge isn't the best fit for everyone (but to be honest, neither is a tablet, which try as you might, is a poor platform for anything but consuming information). Ubuntu Edge doesn't fit in perfectly with the world as it is. It isn't even designed to fill a gap, or at least not a gap that exists today. It is designed to be that device that is necessary to make the future that many of us envision come true. That said, it is priced competitively for the package that they promise and, for people that lug a laptop back and forth from work or for people that have a two or more computers that they struggle to keep in sync (e.g. me), this will be a useful device right now. If I had $700-830 to spend on a speculative device, I would. The real question is whether they can actually deliver what they promise.


  1. Finally someone writing an article who understood the objective correctly !

  2. Great article. Very difficult to read though with small font in white on black. I actually cut and pasted it to read in a text editor.

    1. Hmm, this is a bit surprising to me. Perhaps this is difference in resolutions between our displays?

      I kicked the font size up to 14px from 13px and changed to a lightly serif font (which is better for blocks of text anyway). I hope this helps other readers.

  3. I was about to post the article you mentioned on this review, yesterday for a discussion on reddit. However, I later thought it would do no good for couple of reasons.

    1. People who don't know about the reality of the project, will just bicker using one of the weak arguments presented in that article. E.g Author argues about buying a tablet, phone, and lots of accessories, but still thinks Ubuntu is costly.
    2. His argument about screens not being available everywhere, is strong enough, but I think Ubuntu touch is still a great product, regardless of these environmental limitations. Moreover, if we start saying there is no enough accessories, so I won't make this hardware, is pretty backward thinking.

    I think there was a need for an actual content creation interface (the Ubuntu Desktop) and a content consumption interface (desktop or the phone UI). In that realmn Ubuntu touch is pretty amazing. I hope it gets funded.

    1. I agree. I hope I got this across in the post, Ubuntu Edge will probably not be the best phone out on the market, even if you ignore the hefty price tag. First generation devices usually have a pretty rough run. The goal should be to be useful enough for people to buy, but still have an eye to the future.