Ubuntu Edge – What Happened?

The Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign finished today, which despite having more money pledged than any previous crowdfunding campaign, fell $20 million short of it’s massive $32 million target.Ubuntu Edge promo cards

The good

The campaign created a huge amount of mainstream press for Canonical and for Ubuntu, at a level never seen before.  Jane Silber, Canonical’s CEO, was interviewed on CNBC news.  Forbes ran several articles about the campaign. Several major UK newspapers ran a story about the Edge, including The Sun tabloid, which seized on the fact that Canonical is a British company.  Having received this coverage, the chance of seeing Ubuntu in the mainstream media next time the project hits a big milestone has increased.

Aside from general publicity, the campaign has also generated interest in the Ubuntu Touch platform within the phone industry.  The reason the price of the Edge was lowered to $695 was reportedly due to support from manufacturers who wanted to see the phone become a reality.  This suggests to me that we may see something like the Edge released through more a traditional mobile contract model in the not-too-distant future.

The bad

I’ve seen several factors that contributed to the campaign’s failure, and I’m sure there’s others I couldn’t identify, but here’s a few that stood out to me:

  • The Ubuntu Edge could be more than a phone, but it isn’t, yet.  What made the Edge a unique proposition is what Canonical calls the “Convergence story” – using one device as your phone, desktop, laptop or media centre, depending on the connected peripherals.  The problem is that at launch these peripherals (and even the required software) wouldn’t have existed, meaning people had to make their purchasing decision based on a device that was just a phone, and…
  • People aren’t used to paying for phones.  The Ubuntu Edge was a premium device with a premium price tag. However, as illustrated by the comparison on the campaign’s page, the price wasn’t unrealistic when compared to competing devices.  The trouble is that most people don’t pay that money in one go, they effectively hire-purchase the phone through a contact with their network.  Someone who can afford £20 per month can’t necessarily afford £400 up front for a phone they’ll get 6 months later.
  • Pledging money is scary when you have to pay straight away. The campaign was run on the IndieGoGo platform, which uses PayPal for payments, and requires payment immediately.  Other platforms simply require a pledge, and only take the money when the project reaches its goal, or the campaign deadline is reached.  Potential supporters commented that this put them off as they weren’t confident in PayPal returning their money promptly.
  • Canonical’s lack of crowdfunding experience was very apparent. In Mark Shuttleworth’s final update on the project, he was very open that they’d learned a lot from the campaign.  The campaign opened with a limited number of devices at a big discount ($600 down from $830), which sparked interest and led to some record-breaking rates of pledging. However, while I’d hoped there was a coherent plan to maintain the level of demand once the cheaper tier sold out and then throughout the campaign, no such plan seemed to exist.  Instead we saw several changes in the pricing structure creating confusion and a lack of confidence from potential supporters (if you’ve already paid $830, what happens now the Edge is only $695?).
  • Mark Shuttleworth is very rich indeed. I wish this wasn’t a reason, but it’s certainly been an elephant in the room throughout the campaign.  When a man who can afford to take a holiday in space and run an unprofitable company for fun asks for $32 million so he can release a new product, there’s bound to be those who think he should put up the money up himself (try that one on Dragon’s Den and see how far you get).  To me, this is an unfair position to take (why spend millions of dollars making a phone no-one wants to buy?) and smacks of a sense of entitlement from members of the community, but it was certainly one that I saw expressed.

What Next?

When the campaign started, I predicted that failure could mean a huge amount of embarrassment for both Canonical and the Ubuntu community.  However, looking back I can see that both parties were always prepared for failure – Canonical were clear that they knew it was a hugely ambitious goal, and the community were never sure if it was reachable.  This made failure much easier to swallow for all concerned, and much easier to present to the wider world.

There are those who say that Canonical never meant for the Edge to be made, and the whole campaign was a publicity stunt.  I can’t say if that was the case, but if it was, they’ve certainly made a good job of it.

This won’t be the last we see of the Ubuntu phone.  There’s currently an App Showdown competition with a huge number of entries that’s seeing apps created for and ported to the Ubuntu Touch platform.  Canonical’s re-engineering of Ubuntu to allow full device convergence in the next Long-Term Support release shows no signs of slowing.  I can’t say what shape the first Ubuntu phones will take, but I am sure that they’re not far off.