Now that the Android tablets have started trickling into the market, the race is on. But this race is one in which early entries are going to have a huge advantage over late starters. Why? Traction. The iPad has already won over tons of adopters. The Android pads shouldn't have any problems with users who are already taking advantage of that platform on their phones. So this leaves Windows and Linux. It's a given that Windows tablet PCs will soon flood the market. And when the Window tablets hit, they will probably hit at a good price point and will find themselves duking it out with Android to take that coveted second place behind the iPad.
And then there's Linux. A platform that is ideal for tablet PCs, doing nothing. Oh, sure Mark Shuttleworth has made big claims that when Ubuntu 11.04 comes out it will primed and ready for tablets (especially those made by Dell). But where are those tablets? Where are the announcements that Canonical and Dell have collaborated to create a mean tablet machine? There has been rumor that a Ubuntu 10.10-based Tenq tablet, featuring multi-touch is to arrive at "some point." But these are all unsubstantiated rumors. Nothing is solid. Linux is gaining no ground in what will most likely be the "it" technology for some time. And that is going to hurt Linux in the end.
Yes, if you really want a Linux tablet you can find plenty of how-tos to slap a distro on a specific piece of hardware. But that's not going to cut it. If Linux is to gain any ground now, there must be a tablet maker shipping a model, an impressive model, with Linux pre-installed.
A while back I posed that the Elive Linux distribution was the ideal distribution for a tablet PC. It was lightweight, offered the 3D eye candy of Compiz, was very flexible, and user-friendly. I've had plenty of readers contact me to say they agreed. I still stand by that claim. In fact, I believe that distribution would be a far better choice than that of Ubuntu. But, again, nothing will come of that.
My fear is this: Linux has come such a long way and has proven itself an outstanding choice for the desktop. It's taken the distributions a very long time to get there and to show the general public its desktop prowess. But now, the fickle public has moved on to smaller and better things - the tablet. And with the attention span of the general population growing shorter and shorter, the window of opportunity for Linux to prove itself on the tablet is very small. If a distribution and hardware manufacturer do not strike a deal soon, and get those Linux-based tablets in production, the race will be over before Linux can even lace up it's shoes.
We saw something similar to this with the netbook craze, and it looked like Linux was actually going to win that race. But something strange happened and Windows pulled some crazy come-from-behind-win. I believe that happened because Linux got sloppy and assumed there would be no other players in the game. Of course the netbook craze mostly died off. The tablet phenomenon doesn't feel the same. This seems more like an evolutionary step than a "see what we can do" craze. Tablet PCs are, I believe, here to stay. They have value. But in order for Linux to actually be taken seriously in this market, a Linux tablet must appear sooner, rather than later, and it must not been seen (in any way) as a toy. For a Linux tablet to really work it will have to do these things:
- Ship pre-installed on a solid tablet.
- Beat out, feature for feature, the iPad.
- Have a better, cleaner, interface than the competition.
- Not suffer the same "lock down" that iPad users will experience.
- Connect to Amazon.com MP3 out of the box.
- Play all multimedia out of the box.
- Have powerful hardware.
- Not feel "cheap."
Without the above, any chance for success by a Linux tablet is lost.
What needs to happen is a distribution, such as Elive, needs to approach a hardware manufacturer and show off what their distribution can do with a tablet. I know the developers of Elive have been working on a touch-screen version of their distribution. I would suggest they put it in high-gear, take it very seriously, and find a hardware manufacturer willing to take that chance.
The tablet race has already begun and Linux is already behind. But in order to win (or even qualify for) this race, Linux has to have a contestant...and Android really can't be counted as a "Linux-based" tablet.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.