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Ubuntu Edge: the best smartphone you'll never own

Published 
31 Jul 2013
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Canonical's Ubuntu Edge smartphone is one of the most exciting crowdfunding projects this year, but the ambitious project may not see the light of day

Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system, is currently raising funds to manufacture its Ubuntu Edge smartphone. More than just another iPhone rival, the Edge will behave like a mobile when you're on the move but turns into a computer with a full desktop operating system when you connect it to a monitor, in a system Canonical calls "desktop convergence".

WHAT MAKES A SUPERPHONE

As it's a work in progress, Canonical has yet to finalise specifications, but promises the Edge will have "the latest available multi-core processor", at least 4GB of memory and 128GB of storage. However, it's the 11-pin MHL connection that turns the "superphone" into a desktop computer. The interface acts as both a Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) interface to send 1,920x1,080 video to a display and a USB On-The-Go host connector to connect a keyboard and mouse. With the supplied cable, you won't need a display with a special MHL-HDMI input and can just connect it to any HDMI port.

Connect it to a display, mouse and keyboard for a full desktop experience

Connect it to a display, mouse and keyboard for a full desktop experience

Although the proposed 4.5in 1,280x720 display might not set pulses racing, the materials used to build it should. Sapphire crystal, described as "a material so hard only diamond could scratch it", should come as a relief to anyone who's left their keys in the same pocket as their phone. The Edge is also to include support for 4G mobile networks, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4 and NFC, an 8MP rear camera and 2MP front camera.

The Edge is set to ship as a dual-boot device, with both Ubuntu Mobile and Android (4.3 or better) operating systems. The Android OS will come ready-installed with the Ubuntu for Android app, letting you run an Ubuntu Desktop environment that can be connected to an external display and controlled with a mouse and keyboard from within Android. Canonical plans to release an update to add this capability to Ubuntu Mobile "shortly after launch" as well. Until then, though, the dual-boot Ubuntu Mobile operating system probably won't really come into its own.

The Ubuntu Edge will dual boot Ubuntu mobile and Android

The Edge will dual-boot Android and the Ubuntu mobile operating system

Canonical isn't the first company to propose or even release a hybrid mobile/desktop device. In 2011, Motorola released the Atrix, whichcould be connected to a laptop style docking station which allowed it to boot into a Ubuntu-based desktop. Unfortunately, the Lap Dock cost around £300 on top of the cost of phone, which meant that you could get a more powerful nettop PC for less money. There was a much cheaper £75 multimedia dock which let you connect it to an HDMI display, long before the MHL standard became popular, but it wasn't enough to make the Atrix a hit. The innovation awards and critical acclaim it garnered from the industry didn't make an impact on customers.

FUNDING A PHONE

Canonical has made an unusual choice to finance development of the Ubuntu Edge using crowdfunding website Indiegogo. Victor Palau, VP of mobile delivery at Canonical told us the company believes that "there is a gap in the mobile industry and innovation isn't being pulled through into mass consumer devices. New technologies are available today, but do not have a testing ground to be proven before making it into volume phones. Crowdfunding is a great approach to rally a community of savvy users that are hungry for new technologies and look forward to test-drive them." It's also an effective way to gauge market interest without having to throw money at a project.

Unfortunately, a week in, with a little over 7 million of the required 32 million dollars raised and the rate of pledges slowing, things aren't looking particularly promising for the future of the handset. However, Canonical is making a wise move in leaving the phone's existence down to whether there really is demand for it or not.

Speaking to Reddit users, company founder Mark Shuttleworth confirmed that the campaign would have to raise its full 32 million dollar goal in order for the phone hardware to be produced, describing the sum as "what it costs to bring a device to market". The first 1,250 phones, priced at $725 (£471) were snapped up; hardly surprising given what a bargain they represent if the project does get funded.

Ubuntu Edge concept art - construction

The Indiegogo project will purely fund phone hardware - development of the software continues regardless

BEYOND THE EDGE

If funding isn't met, Canonical will scrap the notion of releasing its own phone hardware and will instead "focus only on commercially available handsets" and continue working with other manufacturers who wish to support development of Ubuntu Mobile. In the interim, if you're curious about Ubuntu mobile OS, you can download it now for your Android smartphone or tablet, but keep in mind this involves flashing your device. Meanwhile, Victor Palau informs us that Canonical is "working with manufacturers to make Ubuntu for Android available later in the year".

As funding currently stands, it looks as through the Ubuntu Edge may end up being the best smartphone that never was. We'd love to get our hands on one, though, and there's still time to pledge money to the project at Indiegogo.

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