When Google, Apple or Microsoft want to release new versions of their smartphones, they don't ask you for help funding the project. They make an investment and hope it pays off when you, the consumer, pony up some cash for the gadget.
Ubuntu maker Canonical wants to do the exact opposite. It wants you to pay to help build its new smartphone, the Ubuntu Edge, through a new crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. To the tune of $32 million.
Canonical has long been a company committed to making open source Linux software that it provides for free. It makes money through partnerships with computer makers and by selling services and support related to Ubuntu on the server and desktop. Its business model naturally leads to the company being relatively cash poor, though its ambitions are large.
What Is The Ubuntu Edge?
Canonical’s prototype smartphone is called the Ubuntu Edge. It is the first device from Canonical based on the Ubuntu phone operating system, which has been in the works since late 2011. The company showed off some design and functionality for the Ubuntu smartphone OS earlier this year, highlighting the fact that it would try to converge smartphone and PC environments and be fully gesture based.
The Ubuntu Edge will be a 4.5-inch smartphone that will run both Android and the Ubuntu phone OS. When “docked” with a computer, it will also run the full Ubuntu desktop operating system. It will run HTML5-based mobile Web apps that can be made through the Ubuntu Software Developer Kit (SDK) as well as Android applications.
Due to the unique crowdfunding nature of the Ubuntu Edge, Canonical says that the final hardware specs for the device are fluid and subject to change but hopes to hit with “the fastest available multi-core processor” as well as 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of internal storage.
The Crowdfunding Campaign
Canonical is offering five different tiers to support the Ubuntu Edge project. At $20, you can be an on the “Ubuntu Edge Founders page,” which basically means you get your name on some website. For $600, you get the opportunity to buy the Ubuntu Edge at a 24-hour introductory price. For $830, you actually will receive an Ubuntu Edge device when it is available. For $10,000, you will receive one of the first 50 numbered devices and access to app builders working on Ubuntu Edge apps as well as an invite to join Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth at an unveiling event. For $80,000, you can get the “Enterprise 100 Bundle” that consists of 100 devices, “plus access to best-practice workshops and 30 days of online support to help CIOs and IT managers integrate Ubuntu for Android into the workplace.”
In the FAQ section of the Indiegogo page, Canonical explains why it is raising a whopping $32 million:
It’s all about scale. To offer the final product at a competitive price we need to produce enough volume to bring the unit costs down. At the same time, we want to be selecting parts that are not yet proven for multi-million-unit production. This is the balance we found. A lower funding target might seem more likely to succeed, but the individual perk amounts would have to be significantly higher. We believe this funding target and these perk levels give us the best chance of success.
Linux, Crowdfunding & Controversy
The crowdfunding of gadgets hasn’t had a particularly good history. Both the OUYA Android gaming console and Pebble smartwatch were delayed significantly after their initial crowdsourcing pledges and many backers didn’t receive their devices until they were available in stores. Both OUYA and Pebble were small, independent companies before their crowdfunding campaigns.
Canonical is not a small indie company. It has hundreds of employees and offices around the world. It might not make a lot of money but it isn’t exactly an incubator-bred startup out of Y Combinator or TechStars. The $32 million that Canonical is asking for on Indiegogo would likely represent a significant total of its yearly revenue.
Yet, for a company like Canonical to go to a crowdfunding site to raise money for a project is kind of like television and movie star Zach Braff going to Kickstarter to raise money for his new movie. He has resources and connections to make the movie without asking the public for help but not enough clout in his own right to straight-up finance the project himself. Canonical, just like Braff, may face significant backlash for the choice to crowdfund the project.
Canonical also isn’t the only also-ran Linux smartphone operating system maker to be asking the public for money building a smartphone. Jolla is a smartphone created by former MeeGo developers who worked on the operating system at Nokia before the Finnish smartphone maker axed the project. Based on the “Sailfish OS,” the folks at Jolla are basically making the same plea to its constituents to fund the building of its dream smartphone.