Handheld Technology

Will Ubuntu's Linux Tablet Shake Up the Market?

Strange as it may seem, not everyone is happy with the state of the tablet market. You wouldn't know it from the ubiquity of these glimmering, slab-like windows into the digital world, but there's a group of potential tablet buyers whose needs aren't being met: Linux users.

Some people don't want iOS devices, with their strict control over what users can and can't install and little to no access to the underlying code. And many don't want Android either, with its app store that contains lurking malware and countless trivial games, not to mention Google's overbearing countenance smiling down semi-benignly. They want to do "apt-get install" – or, even better, compile from scratch – and know that they're using proper, free, open-source code.

Then there are the security aspects. Apple's pretty good in that respect, Android less so, but neither can compare with a properly locked-down Linux box. And Linux apps are free, which is a big benefit.

Android and iOS are hugely successful and capable mobile operating systems, used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But they're not what everybody wants. Some people want real, full Linux on a portable device, a clone of their desktop machines that they can carry around with them when necessary. Give it an HDMI port and it might even replace a few desktops.

Such users may only represent two or three per cent of potential tablet buyers, but two or three per cent of hundreds of millions of units is no small beer. That's why it's surprising that this market isn't yet being properly catered for.

Ports of end-user applications such as LibreOffice, Firefox, countless mail clients, GIMP, Geany and thousands of other open-source programs are already available on the main ARM architectures, so why can't they be run on tablets? I don't mean cut-down versions that mimic some of the features: I mean the full Monty.

You can run true Linux happily on a 630MHz laptop from 2008. Why can't you run it on one of today's tablets with more than twice that processing power? Especially as Android is little more than a bare-bones version of Linux with Java welded on top.

Currently the only way to run Linux on most tablets is via a chroot (a way of switching temporarily into another operating system's application space) or a VNC session into a virtual machine, but there's still the native OS running behind the scenes.

And if you want to bypass Android altogether? That's harder. Some Android tablets have been hacked to dual-boot versions of Linux after installation of a new boot-loader, but the results are often average, with some of the tablet's features under-utilised because the drivers for the underlying hardware haven't been open-sourced.

And there's the rub. There's little point in running Linux on a tablet if the 3D graphics chip is disabled or the battery life is halved or the GPS is unusable or the camera doesn't work. Apple and Google can integrate their operating systems tightly into the hardware. The disparate network of Linux coders doesn't have that commercial clout and so has to play catch-up. You can make it work, but it's hardly an elegant, out-of-the-box user experience.

True Linux tablets were available for a while. The Nokia N-series of internet tablets, which arguably kick-started the tablet revolution, developed a cult following, especially once enterprising hackers found a way to run a full Debian desktop install on them. These machines were adored, so much so that the end-of-line N900, which was nominally a smartphone but really a small Linux tablet that happened to incorporate a GSM modem, is being independently cloned/updated and re-manufactured as the Neo900.

But outside that little niche, for a while it seemed that the demand just wasn't there. Projects such as Vivaldi and PengPod came and went with little fanfare and even less commercial success. Not having held those gadgets in my hands, I can't say whether their failure was due to technical specifications, design or some other factor, but lack of marketing budget probably played a part. Occasional, forlorn web searches for 'Linux tablet' over the years have rarely borne much interesting fruit.

Until Ubuntu threw its hat into the ring. Canonical has had big plans for the launch of an Ubuntu-based tablet for a while, with current predictions pointing to Q4 this year. There should be a phone, too, though it looks like that will be running on a chroot basis alongside Android, so it wouldn't be surprising if the tablet generated more interest. To quote Canonical regarding the tablet, “Without the overhead of a Java virtual machine [i.e. the Android layer], Ubuntu runs core software at native speeds giving you fast, fluid transitions and a responsive design – even on low-end devices.”

Not all Linux users are fond of Ubuntu on PCs. The Unity desktop in particular has divided users in a similar way to Windows 8's tile interface, which is a polite way of saying a lot of people hate it. But the beauty of Linux is that other desktop environments are available. So if you don't like it, change it. Hopefully that will also apply to the tablet version. And one would hope that any tablet capable of running Ubuntu would also be capable of running Debian, Arch or another distro for which ARM repositories are available, because the hardware drivers should already be open-source.

So along with a fair few other Linux users, I'm looking forward – cautiously, and with increasing impatience – to the launch of Ubuntu's tablet. Pricing will matter, as will performance, design, battery life and all the other factors that govern tablet purchasing decisions today. But if it lives up to expectations (and that's a big 'if') it will add an interesting twist to a tablet market that has been dominated by two big companies for a long time.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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