Canonical to crowdfund first batch of Ubuntu Edge phones

The company hopes to raise $32 million to produce 40,000 Ubuntu Edge phones, which will double as PCs when docked

Canonical is taking its innovative smartphone design directly to potential customers. The company has launched a crowdfunding campaign to build the original batch of its planned Ubuntu Edge devices.

Canonical hopes to raise US$32 million within 30 days, to build 40,000 units. It will use the Indiegogo service and the Paypal electronic payment service, to collect the contributions.

"We'll use crowdfunding to see if there is a real market," said Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu founder, in a press conference. "Today there are very few people who decide what will go into the next generation of handsets. And they can't possible get it right all the time. With crowdfunding, we can connect the passionate forward-thinking types directly to manufacturers."

Contributors who pledge $600 on Tuesday, or $830 for the remaining 29 days, will get one of the devices, which are due to be shipped in May 2014. Canonical will not build the phones should the full $32 million not be donated, though handset manufacturers have indicated a willingness to build the phones on their own, should they receive sufficient interest from the phone carriers.

Like Microsoft did with its Windows RT tablets, Canonical is hoping to kickstart interest among device manufacturers for an innovative hardware design by introducing its own device. Unlike Microsoft, Canonical has no plans to stay in the hardware market after this test run of devices. The company plans to break even in this project, though obviously it will benefit by raising awareness of the Ubuntu Edge.

Ubuntu sees two potential users of Ubuntu Edge: early adopting consumers and the organizations that wish to use the product as a combined smartphone and a sort of thin-client device to power worker desktops.

The Ubuntu Edge is a unique smartphone design in that it would be the first that could be used as a smartphone as well as a full-fledged personal computer, when docked to a monitor with an HDMI cable and linked to an optional keyboard and mouse.

Canonical's idea is that the user can use the phone when out and about, but switch to a PC when docked, thereby consolidating two devices into a single one.

"If you only have to buy one set of RAM, CPU and storage and CPU for your phone, your tablet and your PC, there are enormous savings there in doing that," Shuttleworth said. "If developers only have to target one platform, there are enormous benefits for them."

"This will be the first phone you can connect to a screen and get a full PC experience," Shuttleworth said. The Ubuntu Edge would dual boot both the Ubuntu desktop OS and Android.

As a result of this potential dual usage, the phone design calls for more muscular componentry than is typically found in a phone. It will feature a quad-core processor, though Canonical has not decided on which chip company will provide the CPU. It will also come with 4GB of working memory, or RAM, which is twice what high-end smartphones now offer.

"By putting more RAM in, we think we can get comfortable performance" on the desktop, Shuttleworth said.

The Ubuntu Edge will contain 128GB of storage. The 4.5 inch, 280 x 720 pixel display will be made from a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal, and it will feature a novel silicon anode battery technology that promises longer charges.

The device will provide high-speed roaming with access to 4G-LTE broadband in both Europe and the U.S. It will also support dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4, and NFC (near field communication). It will have two cameras, an eight megapixel rear camera and a two megapixel front facing camera.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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