Whatever happened to the 'desktop smartphone'?

By Peter Gothard
13 Aug 2014 View Comments
Ubuntu for smartphones

Last summer, it looked, for a short while at least, that Canonical was going to break crowdfunding history and raise $32m in just a month, in order to produce a smartphone with fully desktop-ready functions. Plug in a monitor, and you'd be running a full-fat build of Ubuntu in a device you could carry home in your pocket.

But it was not to be. After raising just under $13m of the amount needed, Canonical had to pack up and go home. The Ubuntu Edge - as the device had been named - was never to be.

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But what many expected was that, after such a massive amount of interest ($13m of crowdsourcing in four weeks was no mean feat), surely somebody else would be trying such a thing by now? But no. Why not?

It's easy enough to blame fantastic hardware overheads, for a start. What reasonably priced smartphone, even now, can perform with the same speed and reliability of a desktop, or even a high to medium-end laptop?

Microsoft has begun, at least, pawing at the edges of such a 'converged device' concept with its recent proclamations of an operating system, at least, that spans devices.

CEO Satya Nadella stated recently that Windows Phone, Windows and even Xbox One share 90 per cent of their APIs. The next Windows, we are promised, will be the same across every bit of plastic.

But that feels, in some ways, like the reverse approach of the Ubuntu Edge. It still doesn't explain why somebody hasn't started trying to thrash out a Chrome OS phone, or a Windows 8 7in tablet (alright, there's a few of those - but they've been dreadful so far).

Ex-BT CTO and futurist Peter Cochrane even goes so far as to suggest that slightly darker realities may be keeping such fanciful notions from the market.

"Don't underestimate the ability of manufacturers to freeze technology out of the market," Cochrane told Computing.

"The everlasting lightbulb and the everlasting match were both real, but manufacturers realised they stood to lose money out of it.

"It's ever so easy to predict when technology will arrive and what it will do, and what benefits it will manifest.

"What the heck the publishers will accept, and what manufacturers will want to do, remains a complete and utter mystery.

"If 20 years ago you'd said people would be wandering around in the street texting or listening to headphones, people would say you're out of your mind."

Cochrane, in fact, bases this statement on a real anecdote in which he was consulting with one of the 'big four' US telcos and had his sanity questioned for suggesting that mobile phone texting would one day replace pagers.

But if it's 'just business' and fickle, consumerised trends holding back the dream converged desktop phone, Canonical's not letting on.

A year down the line, the company is just putting the finishing touches to some smartphones it's bringing to market with hardware partners - the same ones, perhaps, it was trying to impress with the Indiegogo crowdfunder that, just maybe, was never even designed to succeed, and more to attract attention.

Canonical product manager Richard Collins won't be drawn on that kind of talk, but is only too happy to spill the beans on Canonical - and Ubuntu's - ongoing strategy in the converged device market.

"The vision for Ubuntu has always been a single codebase that will run on multiple types of device," he stated.

"In terms of what the Edge was originally about, it was an independent, off-the-wall initiative. We thought it would be worthwhile in order to ascertain what the climate is within the industry to do something else with smartphones - it wasn't ordinarily something we'd consider doing ourselves."

Collins agreed with Cochrane in some ways. "I think the reason it hasn't happened is because there's a lot of risk associated with the way smartphone manufacturing is right now," he told Computing.

"Manufacturers are not risk averse, and don't want to invest in something that is a diversion of the way the industry tends to work."

Collins described an industry with "very few choices when it comes to operating systems" in the wider mobile industry.

In fact, he says, there is "really only one" - Android. And that "isn't evolving. Not at all. There's not a lot of innovation going on around it right now. It's all just following the way Google is developed. There has to be an alternative to Android," he stated, almost with desperation.

Computing brings up Windows which, as mentioned earlier, seems to be close to attaining similar goals. He's dismissive.

"Microsoft have tried it two or three times before, but fundamentally they're coming at it from a completely different background," he said.

"They've made a number of different OSs, and they kind of bolt them together with the hardware, and people don't experience the quality of continuity or the right price, and the products have suffered.

"The latest OS [Windows 8] is obviously about to be scrapped. So the whole Surface project of trying to bring in convergence seems to be failing."

Ubuntu's not doing it, and according to them, Microsoft can't do it either. Your move, Android? The battle for the ultimate all-in-one smartphone is still to be fought.

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