Does the 485th richest person in Britain really need to crowdfund a mobile phone?

People get fanatical about open-source software, but Canonical Inc. is not a charity, writes Alex Hern.

Yesterday, Canonical, the private company which leads development of the open-source operating system Ubuntu, started a crowdfunding campaign on the site IndieGoGo. The aim is to raise $32m to enable the production of the "Ubuntu Edge", a planned smartphone running the operating system which will incorporate elements of the desktop software, to create what the company calls "next generation of personal computing".

The device itself looks promising, although with a starter price of $830 (the crowdfunding campaign is offering discounts of up to $230 to early backers) it will need to be top-of-the-line to compete. Nonetheless, just a day in and they have already raised over $4m. But there's a bigger question to be asked, which is: why crowdfund?

The relationship between Ubuntu and Canonical can be confusing, at least to people outside the world of open-source software development. "Open-source" is the term for software which has been released to the commons by its creators. There's a number of ways to do this, but the most popular is with a so-called "copyleft" license, like the "GNU general public license", or GPL. That allows anyone to take the source code of a program and use it to make new things, without asking permission or paying anyone anything; but, it requires that any new software which is made is also licensed under the GPL, and has its source code released to the public.

Ubuntu, the operating system which Canonical leads development of, is licensed in this way. It's based on a family of open-source operating systems called GNU/Linux, and so it would be difficult (although not impossible) to charge for: anyone who wanted to get the software for free could perfectly legally download the source code, compile it, and then host it themselves.

Instead, the way companies such as Canonical make their money is by selling customer support and similar services to users of open source software. But with the Ubuntu Edge, they won't even have to do that. While the software will be open source, the hardware is still something people will have to buy, so they will be able to make money on it far more directly. And they do make money; Canonical is a private company with a reported annual revenue of $30m, founded by Mark Shuttleworth, the 485th richest person in Britain, who bought a flight on the International Space Station in 2002 for $20m.

If you're a multi-million dollar company headed by a multimillionaire with a bolshie idea for a product which could make you a lot of money, the normal way to do things is to sell shares and take loans until you've got enough cash to fund the product; then sell that product to customers. Taking thousands of pre-orders for a phone which you won't deliver until May 2014 – and which you have no contractual obligation to deliver at all, because crowdfunding sites are not e-commerce sites – and dressing it up in the aesthetics of artistic patronage is an odd, and slightly distasteful, way of doing things.

Kickstarter, the leading crowdfunding site, recently doubled-down on its opposition to this sort of campaign, writing that it's a service "to help bring creative projects to life", and tightening up its rules to prevent companies using it to launch their businesses. It's not hard to see why, when this is the sort of thing which has been stopped.

The Ubuntu Edge docked with a monitor. Photograph: Canonical, Inc.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon