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As this new year continues to push forward, it seems like Linux is finding its way onto tablets any way it possibly can. And while companies such as Canonical, have been pushing Unity as a great way to embrace the Linux experience on a tablet, we now have yet another newcomer: the Spark tablet.
KDE developer Aaron Seig has indicated that while the Spark tablet hardware specs may not be glamorous, the device will have plenty of power to run Mer with the KDE Plasma Active interface. Once the tablet has been launched, non-geeks will have access to an add-on store from which they can install various software titles, widgets, and so on. The real key here in my mind though, is what kind of software are we talking about? Not only that, but who is the target audience for this new tablet running with a FoSS (free open source software) mindset?
Out of the box, I suspect we'll see a lot of existing Linux desktop applications making their way forward. Assuming most of these applications are KDE in origin, this may actually work out just fine. I can think of worse things in life than running the always awesome Amarok music player on a tablet. Needless to say, KDE has some great software titles available to it and many of them may actually be usable on a small touch screen.
Down the road though, I believe the driving force in the application space for this tablet is going to be widget-based. The level of complexity of each remains to be seen, but the simple fact of the matter is that tablet-ready apps are in short supply outside of the Android/iOS space.
The single biggest issue I think the Spark tablet is going to face is providing compelling applications that attract non-Linux geeks. Perhaps I'm being too critical, but thus far things seem to point to the Spark tablet becoming little more than a geek's toy. Then again, there's more to what makes Spark special than meets the eye.
The idea of a solid FOSS-friendly tablet isn't without some attraction. It would be cool to see the community running a tablet without being bound by the rules seen with Android or iOS.
Unfortunately, the rest of the planet doesn't see computing as a religion. To non-FoSS enthusiasts, the purchase of a new tablet comes down to software, functionality and other related factors. In short, does it get the job done?
Now this isn't to say that the idea of a FOSS-friendly tablet is a bad idea. In reality, I think that it's a great idea if there was a way to leverage real choice in what is being run on the tablet itself. But to me, it feels like KDE trying to keep pace with the Unity desktop. And that by itself simply isn't compelling enough.
Despite my initial concerns about the Spark tablet, I was enthralled with the idea of this tablet learning from my usage patterns. It's sort of like Bayesian spam filtering technology on steroids. If this functionality is integrated into some new applications, later to be added to the new Spark store app store, then we may indeed have a FOSS-friendly alternative to Android after all!
A staggered strategy
Plasma Active on the Spark offers some fairly compelling options. Unfortunately, it's going to take time for a non-Android/ non-iOS experience to mature.
At first, this struck me as a huge flaw. The kind of mistake that mirrors what I see Canonical doing with Unity, as it makes its way onto tablets and TV sets mimicking Android.
But as I looked closer at where Spark is headed, I realized that this isn't another tablet OS. This is actually, a huge opportunity if leveraged properly.
It's entirely possible that other tablet makers may want to jump on board with the Plasma Active for their own devices as things progress. This would present some additional hardware options such as higher end tablets. Not to put down the existing Spark tablet specifications, rather pointing out that as a Linux enthusiast, I appreciate putting the money I saved on software into the best hardware available.
Besides, when you consider that it's likely some of the applications running on this tablet are going to be desktop oriented, it makes sense to offer up as much horsepower as possible. After all, widgets can only do so much and Linux enthusiasts enjoy choice in their software.
The Spark II – let me choose this time
Now I have a crazy idea, one that I’m hopeful we might see here in the near future. I'd love to see a "build-a-bear" concept come to Linux-based tablets. High end, low end and all hardware specs in between could be made available under one roof.
How awesome would it be to choose exactly what specs your Spark tablet comes with! This takes the idea of a tablet running FOSS software up a level where even geeks on the fence would be lining up to buy one. As a bonus, I believe it would also help with getting user adoption off the ground, since developers and users alike can select the best tablet specs to meet their needs.
Realistically, I understand that there are some tight controls on certain materials available to create these devices. But on the flip side, I believe that a greater number of solutions could be put into place if there were more specifications to choose from. It would also add to the user experienced "magic" if users were allowed to "build" their next generation Spark tablets from a kit.
Even cooler than that, take a page from Bug Labs and allow developers to take parts of their tablet apart to be exchanged for different components. This would make testing and upgrading much more flexible. I firmly believe that in order for the Spark to be truly unique, it would benefit from both open source software and hardware.
Not just another tablet
I will continue to hold out high hopes for the Spark tablet and Plasma Active. I also believe there is merit for a community-based tablet versus one running Google and Apple code.
And considering this tablet is destined to align itself with people who value choice in their software as well as their operating system, I cannot say loudly enough how important it is to have multiple specification choices to choose from. As for putting together a Spark tablet from a kit form, well, to me this just translates into even further engagement with a target market.
Will Plasma Active translate nicely onto this rather small tablet screen? How many Linux developers will find themselves pulled in to developing for this relatively new idea? All of these are questions are yet to be answered until the Spark tablet finds its way into the marketplace.
One thing I think has been established early on, though, is that the Spark tablet isn't destined to be an iPad killer. As a matter of fact, the Spark is targeting a largely ignored market within the tablet realm; FOSS enthusiasts, Linux developers and those individuals who want to use something genuinely different.