Savile Row and the Ubuntu Edge

The Ubuntu Edge isn't interesting because it's open-source. It's an intriguing stab at a bespoke phone.

Savile pink suit
Swanksalot (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

As of 2 p.m. on this Friday, Linux trendsetter Ubuntu has raised just about $6.6 million on crowdfunding site Indiegogo. If they raise $32 million, they will move ahead with manufacturing the Ubuntu Edge, a phone that they equate to a Formula 1 of phones: limited run, state-of-the-art technology, and decidedly not priced to fly off the retail shelves.

The fact that the phone comes from a Linux-based firm is intriguing, as is the version of Ubuntu that will run on the phone. And there is, I'm sure, quite a bit to say about how Ubuntu will handle support for the phone after it is released. It's an open-source phone, it's completely free of carrier interference, and so on, and so forth. Preaching the open-source, phone-as-personality message can get tiring, though. Let's talk about that $32 million, that sapphire crystal screen, and how one makes the best suits and, maybe now, how one makes phones.

If Ubuntu gets between $725 and $830 from individual backers, they will produce something less than 40,000 phones from the $32 million they receive, and ship them out in May 2014. They won't be for sale any other way. These phones will be something different.

Key among the features is a promise of the "fastest multi-core CPU" around, with 4 GB of memory and 128 GB of storage space. With that kind of juice, you can plug your Ubuntu phone (via HDMI) into any display and use it as a full Ubuntu desktop. Hook up a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you're rolling on the same type of computer that I'm writing on right now. I'm a little skeptical of how many people really keep monitors around for work these days, and then how many of those monitor workers prefer to tap away on an Ubuntu system, but, as noted, this phone is only being built for the people who back it.

Along with that computer-anywhere experience, the phone, which can run both either Ubuntu Phone or Android, or both, has some other distinguishing specs:

  • A 4.5-inch display made of sapphire crystal, supposedly unable to be scratched by anything other than a diamond.
  • Dual-LTE receivers, dual-band Wi-Fi
  • A silicone-anode lithium-ion battery, providing more power in less space than a typical lithium-ion.
  • A chassis "crafted from cool, textured amorphous metal," with rakishly chamfered edges.

What's most interesting to me, beyond the hardware specs (which, one hopes, still stand up by May 2014), the desktop-everywhere strategy, or the open-source matters, is the nature of how this phone could be funded, built, and shipped. Let's talk about suits.

Men and women who are perfectly average in size and proportion can choose from a wide variety of suits "off the rack" at department or clothing stores. But if you want a suit that fits you exactly right, that speaks to your taste and desire for quality (and ability to ship things from London), you have to go to Savile Row. Craftsmen on Savile Row charge a lot, but they also listen to a customer's needs, take into consideration the long-term life and use of the suit, and spare no expense on the details that are seen and unseen.

Not everybody needs a Savile Row suit, and very few could need (or afford) more than one. But no Savile Row suit is like any other, and the people who have them know they did not spend hardly any portion of the suit price on corporate marketing, partnerships, extravagant displays, or building their tailor's app. Suit makers make suits, and charge for their experience and distinctive crafting methods. You pay a good deal, but you get what you pay for.

The Ubuntu Edge doesn't quite fit this brazen metaphor—there will be thousands of the same phone made, after all—but it's an intriguing premise. Thousands of people offering up more than $700 for a smaller entity to build them a phone that emphasizes power, openness, international access, and geeky, tweaky promise. It will not have a free NASCAR video app on it, it will not prevent you from installing whatever firmware you find lying around the web, and you will not have to pay for all the marketing of a Verizon or an AT&T. You just get a phone built to the standards you are seeking.

I'm not sure the Ubuntu Edge is a phone a lot of people need or want, but, for once, that's just fine. If $32 million comes together, lots of people will get a powerful, unique-looking phone, despite the greater world preferring to shop for $200-on-contract phones. Smaller projects with lesser aims or more distinctive differences may follow. Choice is good.

Note: Gina Trapani and I talked about the Ubuntu Edge on this week's In Beta podcast, albeit with a different approach, and with far more skepticism. This post is where I landed after considering the Edge a bit more.

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