Linux on a tablet: Hurry up and wait?

Patrick Gray takes a look at the upcoming Ubuntu tablet and explains why he'll wait for their second generation device.

A couple months ago, I wrote about the potential for open source tablets, with an adapted version of Linux powering some sort of generic tablet hardware. At that time, there was some movement toward creating a tablet-optimized version of Linux, but the efforts were scattershot at best, with no major Linux player throwing their hat into the tablet ring. That changed recently when Ubuntu announced a tablet-centric version of its eponymous Linux distribution targeted toward tablets.

Why Linux?

Linux hasn't enjoyed smashing success on the desktop front, but UNIX-style operating systems form the underpinnings of the most popular mobile OSs, including Android and iOS. UNIX and Linux (a variant of UNIX) fit nicely in this role. They're designed with stability and network connectivity in mind and can be optimized for a variety of hardware. Despite a shared heritage, the applications and user interfaces of mainstream mobile OSs have little in common with a modern Linux distribution like Ubuntu.

What Linux traditionally lacked on the mobile front was "open" hardware that would run Linux, along with the highly optimized drivers and software to make for a successful mobile experience. Prior to Ubuntu, most Linux tablets were the result of hobbyists who reverse engineered drivers and ported Linux to devices on which it was never intended to run. While technically interesting, these ports would be missing key features, from working speakers to a lack of finger-driven navigation.

Ubuntu puts a major brand behind the effort, and one of the better suited Linux brands, as Ubuntu has been known for attempting to reach desktop parity with Windows and Mac OS in terms of ease of use and software.

But what about the apps?

Whenever a new mobile platform comes along, the long-running chicken and egg debate about applications begins. Mobile developers, already overworked supporting a variety of platforms, generally react with mild skepticism to a new platform, and users avoid a platform that's not filled to the brim with apps. A Linux-based tablet has an ace in the hole, however, as Linux and the larger UNIX community have a long tradition of compiling applications on native platforms. Rather than purchasing software from a major vendor, UNIX users generally download source code and compile an application on their specific platform, allowing for an application to run on a variety of hardware and operating system variants (assuming they're in the same general family). Like Windows 8 tablets, in theory, this means an Ubuntu tablet will have access to the massive catalog of Linux and UNIX desktop applications right out of the gate.

In an enterprise setting, Linux and UNIX are generally familiar territory, so while iOS and its Objective-C development environment may present a major challenge, presumably an Ubuntu tablet will provide familiar Linux conventions, with minimal enhancements focused on tablet functionality. Similarly, just as Ubuntu supports major web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, an Ubuntu tablet will presumably also comfortably run these same full-featured browsers, providing access to all your web-based applications without the modifications required to support mobile browsers. In short, you get access to UNIX-based desktop applications and web applications out of the box, and it lets application developers work with common and generally familiar tools rather than dropping yet another set of tools, APIs, and conventions on them.

The missing link

Many users have longed for Linux on a tablet, and Ubuntu putting considerable weight and experience behind the software for such an effort is just what the doctor ordered to make it a reality. The one missing link, however, is hardware. According to the press releases I've seen, Ubuntu is soliciting hardware partners. Software makers leaving the hardware up to a partner is certainly not unfamiliar, but it presents a risk for a company that has not previously focused on this area.

Certainly, many current tablets could likely be easily adapted to run Ubuntu, but rushed drivers that result in poor battery life and an unfinished user interface could undermine what seems like a product with great potential. With most new tablet platforms, I recommend waiting for a second generation device to see if the app catalog catches up with competitors. With the Ubuntu tablet, I'd wait a generation to make sure the hardware and software integrate as closely as competitors before jumping into the tempting sea of UNIX/Linux applications that will be able to run on the device.

What are your thoughts about Linux on a tablet? Will you immediately jump on the bandwagon or wait to see how it performs? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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