How does a South African company go from giving away its product for free, to being a profitable business software firm selling to large enterprises around the globe? The tale of Ubuntu is a long and interesting one, involving Linux, space tourism, and now phone hardware. Running for only 30 days, the Ubuntu Edge crowdsourced fundraising campaign on Indiegogo is attempting to make history by raising the US$32 million needed to build a new type of phone and computer from scratch.
The Ubuntu Edge is supposed to be more than just a phone. The device will dual-boot between Android and the Ubuntu mobile OS, and will include support for attaching a monitor, mouse and keyboard. The ultimate goal is to make a phone that can double as a full computer.
In a video posted on the fundraising page, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu (and the world’s second space tourist), compared the Ubuntu Edge to a Formula One racing car. While car companies can use racecars as a test bed for future technologies, he said, there is no such test bed for phone technologies.
Victor Palau, vice president for phone delivery at Ubuntu, said that the Ubuntu Edge isn’t quite an F-1 car. “The comparison I like the best is with a concept car, where you maybe decide to build a very limited number,” he said.
“Companies only make one or two F-1 cars. This is more like a small run—like 4,000—using some materials and components you might not find in more mainstream devices.”
One of the reasons Ubuntu has decided to build a mobile operating system is that phone manufacturers are quickly becoming worried about how many of their customers are controlled by Google, said Palau. Whereas once mobile phone companies could sell their own software and monetize their end users after the device was sold to them, today Android phone users are almost entirely monetized through the Google Play store, leaving carriers and phone makers out in the cold.
The Tizen phone operating system has been emblematic of this desire by HTC, Samsung and other handset makers to build an operating system that they can control. Despite lavish conferences and developer evangelism, the Tizen operating system has yet to ship on a device in the United States, and Samsung has become increasingly powerful in the Tizen world.
“People are backing Tizen, I think, to not be tied to Google,” said Palau. “They want some alternative. In the past, Tizen has been a good alternative.”