Mark Shuttleworth’s software company, Canonical Ltd, trying to raise $32M to build the first 40,000 units of a smart-phone type device that can run Ubuntu Linux. I predict he’s raise the money, and make the handsets. But the idea will tank anyway. Here’s why.
The concept of a ‘phone capable of running a desktop OS is easy to understand. When you want to use the desktop Ubuntu side you plug it in to a real monitor and keyboard – say one at home and one in the office. When you’re on the move it will run Android Linux (for Android is simply Linux with an Android graphical shell). You carry your environment with you, and carry on working wherever you are, assuming you have a monitor and keyboard available. If you run the Ubuntu graphical environment on the move, using the handset’s touch-screen it’s going to be pretty painful.
People investing about £600 will get a ‘phone, if they’re ever made. Is this an investment, or a pre-ordering deal? I think it’s up to you whether you invest enough to get a ‘phone, or buy even more equity as an investment in the future of the device, but I suspect a lot of people will simply be after the latest gadget. Whether £600 is too much for the Penguinistas, remains to be seen.
I think they stand a good chance of raising the money because they’re selling a dream that’s been around in various forms since the dawn of personal computing. One of the early incarnations would be the Apple IIc, which looked a bit like a portable typewriter when cut free from its monitor. With it you could carry your computer back from the office, but it didn’t catch on. Then, came the Tandon Data Pac, a hard disk cartridge. With a cartridge slot in PCs at the locations you needed to work, you could carry the important part of your environment with you. In those days, Microsoft didn’t do anything prevent hard disk transplants, so this was a realistic idea. But it didn’t catch on. Whether there are 40,000 people in the world who still have this dream is a good question.
Now we have laptop/notebook/netbook PCs, which are easy enough to carry in a briefcase if you get the right kind. I have always had the right kind, starting with the Cambridge Z88, moving on to the Sony Vaio and currently the Lenovo S10-3. At around 1Kg, they’re truly portable but although the Lenovo is modern, it was only on the market for a year or two as the 10″ screens format isn’t for well received by the masses. They demands big and fast, and they aren’t really worried about the battery life as long as they look cool. People often ask me “where can I get one of those”, and I tell them. (Currently only Asus and Acer producing a highly portable laptop/netbook). The snag is that when they get one they then “must” run Office 365, or some similar bloatware that a small CPU can’t handle fast.
If you don’t need battery life and the ability to work on the move, but simply want to carry your PC to and from the office, there are small form factor machines also from ASUS and Acer. If you want really small there’s the Fit-PC2 which can actually fit in a pocket. I must admit, I bought one because I thought it was a neat design. These are all Intel based and can run unmodified Windows, and yet they haven’t really caught on either. The Ubuntu Edge will not run Windows; it runs Linux. This means it won’t run Microsoft Office, ever. My experience has shown this is a big problem for a lot of people. There’s nothing wrong with OpenOffice; it’ll work with Microsoft Office files and vice versa. It’s free, whereas Microsoft Office costs and small fortune. Yet in nearly every case, people who I’ve set up with OpenOffice for cost reasons have hankered after the Microsoft version, and most have gone out and bought it (or otherwise acquired it) within a year.
The CPU for the Ubuntu Edge has yet to be announced, but based on size, battery life and heat dissipation it’s very unlikely to be Intel, or even Intel compatible. The only thing that will fit will be RISC, and given the binary nature of Linux distributions it’ll be the second-best choice of ARM. Or will its users be expected to compile everything from source? No. It’ll be an ARM and the models that are capable of running Linux with a GUI at nearly the right speed will still rip through the battery at an alarming rate.
The final nail in its coffin will be the way people currently commute with their computing environment. This comes down to cheap and cheerful thumb drive, if you can find a ubiquitous Windose PC at both ends, or on-line applications such as Google Docs if you’re really serious about it; all your data and applications on every web browser, and impossible to lose at that. If you can find a keyboard and monitor at both ends, you’re probably going to find a web browser anyway so why bother to carrying your stuff on a mobile ‘phone instead? It’s a solution to a problem that has been a “difficult sell” for 30 years, and which has now been solved by the Internet. Okay, this allows you to use an Android ‘phone between PCs, but you could just get an Android ‘phone to plug that gap in your life.