The Desktop Strikes Back

The Desktop Strikes Back

Article from Issue 155/2013

By the time you read this, the world will already know whether Ubuntu has succeeded in raising US$ 32 million in a crowdfunding effort to build a new Ubuntu-based smartphone. The project has been the talk of open source circles since it started. As of now, it looks like they will be around US$ 22 million short, but that’s the glass-half-empty assessment. The other side is: They have already managed to raise nearly US$ 10 million dollars to create a new smartphone – no small feat for a little fish swimming with the sharks in the sea of mobility.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

By the time you read this, the world will already know whether Ubuntu has succeeded in raising US$ 32 million in a crowd-funding effort to build a new Ubuntu-based smartphone. The project has been the talk of open source circles since it started. As of now, it looks like they will be around US$ 22 million short, but that's the glass-half-empty assessment. The other side is: They have already managed to raise nearly US$ 10 million dollars to create a new smartphone – no small feat for a little fish swimming with the sharks in the sea of mobility.

If they build it, the Edge will come with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage – about twice the power and capacity of the latest Samsung Galaxy system. According to reports, it will be what experts in the industry call a "super-smartphone," meaning that you can take it anywhere and also plug into a monitor to use it as a complete computer system. And, the Edge will run the real Ubuntu – not some mobile knock-off system. Your applications will run on the little screen or the big screen, scaling automatically thanks to Ubuntu's innovations in display technology.

The marketing and outreach on the Ubuntu Edge centers on terms like "new," "exciting," and "next generation." The very name "Edge" implies something that is right out on the cutting edge of everything. But the whole concept of the Edge seems a little retro to me. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind that. In fact, that's my favorite part about it (although I confess I'm known as a bit of a luddite). The best thing about Edge isn't how futuristic it is, but how it brings new meaning and relevance to the past. Let me explain … .

Mark Shuttleworth begins his Edge promotional video with the words "Convergence is the future of computing … ," and he's right, of course. But what is convergence? How does one achieve it? For most phone and mobile OS vendors, convergence is in the cloud. Data is stored in the cloud. Applications run in the cloud. Sure, your alarm clock and appointment list, and the Angry Birds game you play when you're waiting for the doctor, all run on your mobile phone, but when you get down to work – or to more complex tasks such as building a spreadsheet or managing your email folders – you're encouraged to work through the web. Even the quintessential close-source office suite, Microsoft Office, is now a web-based service, accessible from a mobile device or home PC.

But is the cloud really freedom or just a new kind of dependence? You don't have any control over the applications. You don't really even have any control over your data; you can assume the cloud vendor will be combing through your personal information looking for clues about who you are and who your friends are. Also, you have only limited control over what applications you are using in the first place: Mobile apps tend to be simple and more or less all the same, and web apps are whatever someone with a web server decides to make available – nothing approximating the vast trove of treasures found in over 30 years of Free Software development.

Edge gives you convergence without the loss of control and privacy associated with the cloud, letting you keep control of the computing experience in a way that veteran computer users would recognize and appreciate. In other words, cloud convergence as described by Google, Microsoft, and Apple makes the desktop computer more like a mobile device. Convergence as envisioned by the creators of the Ubuntu Edge makes the mobile device more like a desktop computer.

Road warriors have plugged their laptop computers into docking stations for years. The Ubuntu Edge would be a spot along that road warrior continuum, with the added innovation of a telephone – a most interesting development to be sure, but an utter rejection of the paradigm that most mobile companies are passing off as a vision of the new frontier.

Some commentators are already saying the Ubuntu Edge crowd-funding effort will be a success even if Ubuntu doesn't manage to raise US$ 32 million. I guess it depends on how you measure success; but in any case, I certainly hope Ubuntu's bold effort will offer an alternative to the default vision of cloud dependence universally lauded in the IT press as "the future."

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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