Can Linux Compete in Tablets?

Tuesday Aug 30th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Linux users turn their HP TouchPads into Ubuntu-powered devices, but what about app choice?  

As you likely know by now, HP has suspended further development of their TouchPad tablet efforts. The reasons why are debatable at best, yet the end result remains the same.

This tablet is going to be reliant on the community for further support as HP is no longer offering their resources. Some people on the Web today believe that the community will indeed fill the void HP has left; perhaps as a hobbyist's toy.

Yet the biggest question remains: Will we see continued support for the existing OS option used on the HP TouchPad, or instead will Linux distributions like Ubuntu fill the gap?

My first reaction is that both Android and community-supported Linux distributions will be among the options available to TouchPad users post-HP. With Linux offering ARM architecture support, tablet computers will have non-Android Linux distributions as an option, should their manufacturers decide to jump ship.

Despite this good news, one has to wonder: does it matter without compelling Linux software for the tablet being made readily available?

Apps matter

Getting Linux to work on Android tablets as expected isn't the only remaining hurdle. The problem is finding decent desktop software for the tablet user. Unfortunately, there's a lack of tablet-specific titles outside of the Android space. Worse is the lack of motivation to get many new developers on board in creating new Linux titles designed with a tablet user in mind.

You might point out that Linux distributions like Ubuntu have this covered with their own software marketplace. This is true, however, I promise you that $19.99 for select game titles isn't going to cut it for most tablet users looking for Android alternatives. A consistent pricing scheme for others to follow would be helpful.

In addition, Ubuntu would need to make sure that they're able to offer "tablet ready games," which is something that I don't think they're quite ready for. Extensive testing needs to happen first. Thus far, I've seen little evidence of this taking place in the real world with Linux distributions on tablet devices.

Don't misunderstand me, there are indeed tablets that exist now that run their own brand of Linux. And yet, no one outside of tech reviewers are using them. Why? There's a lack of usable applications for tablet users. So everything is left to limited testers and theory.

MeeGo back to the desktop Linux

Sometimes the best way to meet success is to follow the path of least resistance. Though this may not have the "sex appeal" offered by Apple and their iOS. For Linux users, however, there's something to be said for it. This is the approach that was taken by ASUS with the release of their X101netbook/tablet crossover.

For a mere $199, Linux fans can buy this little netbook that offers a number of things not found with tablets. Running MeeGo, the X101 does lack the Ethernet and VGA port found on the bulkier netbooks already out there. Because the target is those considering tablets, this netbook is lacking anything that is going to add bulk to its form.

Now to examine a problem that will likely create another netbook flop. Where's the app store with software others have already played? Lack of a familiar app store may prevent people from getting too excited.

Remember, people trust Android because they've seen first hand what these devices can do. This isn't the case with MeeGo tablet alternatives. The second issue is the terrible battery life in comparison to a tablet. Sure, the price tag isn't bad. However, unless you have something like installed to act as a netbook governor, the battery life is going to stink.

And the final nail in this ASUS netbook coffin is the lack of a touchscreen. Despite my distaste for a touch screen on anything larger than a phone, end-users want this feature badly. This means the only option for a tablet using any variation of Linux is going to be Android-based; perhaps Chrome OS instead.

What's really surprising about this is that big tech vendors still don't get it. Despite my words here and countless other examples, these companies cling to the idea of providing non-Android-based Linux solutions that lack fundamental reasons for consumers to care. As Android has proven, an OS based on Linux can be very success in the marketplace. The secret is making sure that users find what they're looking for both in end-user experience and with available applications.

Meeting in the middle

As much as I hate to admit it, the best way to get user-friendly distributions on to tablets is to rely on Android. Allow me to explain my reasoning.

If big tech vendors are to avoid repeating their mistakes, they need to accept that users want what they're familiar with. This means money and time would be better spent finding creative ways to bridge the needs of desktop Linux applications for those using Android devices. The "cloud application" space is already covered (and coveted) by Google, so why not specialize in what these companies know best? A focus on solution-based software experiences would be the best course of action for these companies.

Together, the big vendors have made great strides in user experience and design, among other aspects of the netbook space. Why not apply these same things into a market that's actually growing? Offer traditional Android marketplace access to users who want more than what Android now offers.

But this distribution already works on tablets!

Linux fans are already experienced with turning their HP TouchPads into Ubuntu devices. The Web is full of stories sharing examples of proud hobbyists showing off their latest hacked-together creations.

This indicates that corporate funds would be better spent cleaning up this existing progress into something user-friendly for Intel or ARM chip designs. And considering the lack of a glide-point in bringing Linux apps to Android, this leads me to believe there has to be a better way to reach this goal.

Want to run Android apps on an existing Linux distribution? Enter the X86 port of Android. This project holds a lot of potential that demonstrates what I think big vendors should have done all along. Not in place of desktop operating systems, rather along side of them. I'd be a more excited about an Ubuntu Netbook Edition based on X86 Android than I would be based on Ubuntu alone.

Now imagine porting this concept into a tablet! Not just an Android tablet, but one that runs both Android software and desktop Linux software on the same screen.

Due to the fact that Android runs as its own OS, the blending of the two environments would be "challenging," to say the least. Then again, I'm confident that developers could find away around this without eating up too much of a tablet's resources.

The X86 project shows us what's possible with X86 architecture. Now let's see what can be done to emulate this success with Linux, Android and ARM while allowing two types of software to run on the same device.

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