Yesterday Canonical, Ubuntu's corporate sugar daddy, announced an ambitious Indiegogo campaign with a target of $32 million to launch their smartphone, the Ubuntu Edge. In a little over a day they've raised over 10% of their goal, blowing past Indiegogo's previous fundraising record of $1.7 million and putting Kickstarter's $10 million record in their sights. But the Ubuntu Edge isn't just another smartphone hoping to carve out a niche in the already overcrowded mobile space. Instead, it presents an entirely new direction for the future of personal computing.
Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, which has about 20 million desktop users, described this vision to Co.Labs:
“Imagine you're on your bike on the way to work and you have an augmented reality experience, which is powered by your phone. All of your contacts, all of your data, and all of the connectivity that a smartphone provides is there. You hop off your bike, get to your office, and put your phone on a pad. That pad wirelessly charges your phone, pops up your PC display on a larger screen, and connects to a keyboard. You now have a full PC environment; your web pages from your phone are right there along with all of your apps. So there's a completely seamless experience from wearable to portable to productivity use-cases, all as a single device.”
This concept of the all-in-one device has come to be known as convergent computing. It represents the belief that our plethora of devices each with their own individual storage, memory, and processors can be combined into one device with the ability to morph into the particular form factor we need at any given moment. It beckons us to a world where we carry around our smartphones as our sole personal devices and connect to peripherals as needed, all of which will be readily available at our homes, offices, libraries, and coffee shops.
It used to be you walked into an Internet cafe and sat down at a computer to do your work. In the future we may have computer labs with everything but the computer—stations where you can transform your smartphone into a desktop. At home, instead of having a devoted tablet, you'll dock your phone on the charging pad and pick up a tablet screen that you take into the next room for reading a magazine.
BlackBerry has also hinted that it is interested in entering this convergent space, with CEO Thorstein Heins telling ABC “How many personal computing devices do you carry? Why not unify this into one device that executes all your computing needs? We are talking about a mobile-computing device that makes sure that for you as a user, you only have to carry one computing device.”
It's telling that a company losing its foothold in the mobile space and another hoping to gain one are turning to convergence as a solution that might make them attractive to consumers. If it plays out the way envisioned, convergent devices could save consumers money by not having to buy what are effectively three (or more) computers. It's also an area that Apple and Google haven't already dominated and can claim ownership over. The Apple ecosystem especially is designed around consumers purchasing a different device for every form factor or mode of engaging with technology.
But consumers aren't the only ones who would benefit. Shuttleworth believes this concept will be appealing to app developers as well. By having one operating system at the core of what we know think of as a multi-device and multi-OS experience, it will help bridge the gap between mobile and desktop applications. “Right now we are able to able to develop code for Ubuntu and test at the same time the phone version of that code, the tablet version, and the desktop version. You're not using a virtual machine or an emulated environment. It really is the same platform,” says Shuttleworth.
In other words, a developer will be able to create one software package and produce an app that scales across form factors. Using the same principles as responsive web design, the app will simply pare away or add features depending on the size of the screen you're looking at. This sort of functionality currently exists in HTML5 webapps, but convergent devices offer the same flexibility for native applications.
“You still have to design different users interfaces, but only in the same way that you do for responsive web design. Mobile developers like to talk about 'mobile first' but what they're really saying is to identify what's most important and shape your experience around that. We think of it instead as a distilling process—what are the tools and features you need in a mobile environment that we can take from the productive desktop environment?" says Shuttleworth.
For the time being though, it appears that Canonical is hedging its bets. The initial release of the Ubuntu Edge, slated for early 2014, will run Android for the mobile version and be loaded with the standard version of desktop Ubuntu. Users will get to the desktop interface by connecting the phone to their monitor via MHL cable. Once Ubuntu Mobile matures, users will be able to replace Android with Ubuntu's in-house mobile experience. And then, at a later date, the convergent and responsively designed OS will take its place. That means that to start out the Ubuntu Edge will essentially be an Android phone that also stores a desktop OS that you can boot from. So we're still a long ways off from the ideal convergent future.
The idea of packing a desktop OS on a small disk is nothing particularly new, which means that the Ubuntu Edge may not be especially groundbreaking on Day 1. The same thing can be accomplished with a Raspberry Pi. Load up your favorite Pi-compatible Linux distribution and carry the board around with you until you happen upon an unoccupied monitor, keyboard, and mouse. And in the free software and security world, the idea of a portable OS, such as The Amnesiac Incognito Live System (TAILS), has been around for a while. The difference with the Ubuntu Edge or a similar convergent device, even at its limited launch, is that you'll have the desktop experience in your pocket ready to go at a moment's notice, but you'll also have the convenience and persistence of a consumer smartphone within the same device.
It's unclear right now where the cloud fits in this vision of the convergent future. Are the two in competition? As more and more moves to the cloud, it's arguable that the web-browser-as-operating-system, such as Chrome OS (or the open source Firefox OS), will become dominant. It's not hard to find a tech writer out there claiming that some day in the near future all of our apps will run in the cloud. And while there are certainly concerns about the cloud from privacy and security advocates, there is also the more appealing vision of everything running on the open web following HTML standards. So maybe it's not all bad.
But there might also be a way that the cloud and convergence can coexist and even complement each other. After all, one of the first objections to an all-in-one device the size of a smartphone might be that a device that size doesn't have enough storage for an individual's entire digital life. Cloud storage offers a simple workaround for that problem.
Canonical's vision of how the two might work in tandem runs even deeper. “The architecture of the modern application is that it's running simultaneously on the cloud and on the device. There are aspects that make sense to run on the native device and aspects that make sense to run in the cloud. No one can replace the other,” Shuttleworth noted. Taking the concept of convergence beyond consumer devices but to the cloud-client relationship as well, he added: “What's really interesting is that Ubuntu is a really natural platform for people building the cloud half of the application. Most of what's running on Amazon [Web Services] is Ubuntu. So now you'll be able to run both the front- and back-end of your application on Ubuntu. [Your server] will be running exactly the same libraries and versions of Ubuntu.”
Even if the cloud and convergence can play nice, a few more questions remain: Do consumers actually want this kind of experience? This kind of user flow is untested and as to how desirable this kind of interaction is, companies are in uncharted territory. And second, assuming it is something consumers want: Will Ubuntu (or BlackBerry) be the one to deliver it? Or, with a planned release date of May 2014 for the Ubuntu Edge, will one of the current mobile giants, including Google's partners at Samsung, stake out that territory for themselves?