The theme of the 2011
conference (Taipei, August 20-21) was "Gadgets beyond smartphones." Based
on a number of the talks and exhibits on offer, "beyond smartphones" seemed
"tablets" to a number of the people in attendance. Two talks by
representatives of competing desktop environments show some interesting
similarities and differences in how they see the tablet opportunity.
First up was GNOME developer Bastien Nocera, speaking on the theme "my sofa
wants a new form factor." That new form factor, naturally, is the tablet - an
ideal device, it seems, for the typical couch potato. Tablets, he said, are
"the new Eldorado"; everybody is trying to get there.
There are a number of options for software to run on tablets. One could
use Windows, but it is non-free and uninteresting. iOS, too, is entirely
proprietary; it's also unavailable for non-Apple hardware. WebOS was an option when
Bastien wrote his talk, though things had changed in the meantime - the
demise of WebOS shows what can happen to a proprietary platform owned by a
single company. Then there's Android, but the problem with Android,
according to Bastien, is that it's entirely owned by Google. It is not
truly open; one has to be one of Google's best friends to have any kind of
early access to the software. The result is that there are a lot of
tablets on the market running old versions of Android. MeeGo, he said, was
not really even worth mentioning; it is a "puppet" of Intel without any
real community governance.
What all this comes down to is that, at the moment, there is an opportunity
for something else in the tablet market. Unsurprisingly, Bastien thinks
that GNOME 3 would be a good something else.
GNOME 3, he says, is the result of an ongoing push for more vertical
integration in the platform. Increasingly, GNOME is seen to include
components like PulseAudio, NetworkManager, udev, and, more recently,
systemd. GNOME, in other words, is becoming more of an operating system in
its own right. Furthering that evolution, the project plans to start
shipping full operating system images to users. The full GNOME experience
is hard to produce if distributors change pieces of the platform - using
ConnMan instead of NetworkManager, for example. The project wants to
produce a single, unified experience for GNOME users.
And they want GNOME 3 to be an option for tablets. There are a number
of advantages to the platform: it's a community-based, 100% free project
with an open development model. But, he said, it lacks one thing:
hardware. So Bastien put out a call to hardware manufacturers: please talk
to the GNOME project about what they have to offer. And, if nothing else,
please send your drivers upstream and ensure that the hardware is supported
by free software.
Bastien was replaced at the lectern by KDE developer Aaron Seigo who had a
surprisingly similar story to tell. The existing platforms, he said, are
not free; he cited the result of some study which - using an unclear
methodology - came to the conclusion that iOS was 0% open while Android
did a little better at 23% open. Linux (for some value of "Linux") came in
at 71% open. KDE, he said, is going for 100% open.
Aaron introduced Plasma and Plasma Active (recently described in LWN); these projects have existed
in desktop and netbook variants for a while now. The tablet version is
more recent, but is well advanced regardless. The goals for all of the
variants are the same: an "amazing experience" which creates an "emotional
bond" in users, an efficient development framework, and the ability to run
the same application on all types of devices. Aaron noted that all three
variants share almost all of their code.
One part of the talk sounded quite different from Bastien's talk: Plasma,
Aaron said, has been designed as a set of components which can be assembled
in any number of ways. KDE is not shooting for the single unified
experience; it is aiming to build a platform with which others can create
any number of different experiences.
According to Aaron, there are seven companies working with Plasma now,
along with a lot of community developers. But the project is looking for
more developers, more designers, and more companies to work with; they are
especially interested in hardware partners. KDE, he said, has something
that is compelling and shippable today; all it needs is something to ship
that software on. (He had previously said that a couple months of
polishing were planned; perhaps a large value of "today" was intended).
In your editor's view, there does seem to be an opportunity in the tablet
space at the moment. Apple's offerings still own this category,
but that situation seems unlikely to last forever. Android is the logical
choice for a
second leading system, but Google's control may not sit well with all vendors,
especially now that Google is, through its acquisition of Motorola
Mobility, becoming a hardware vendor in its own right. The management of
Android, according to Google, will not change as a result of this
acquisition, but that is just the problem: companies like Motorola have
already tended to get privileged access to unreleased Android versions.
And, in any case, a duopoly is still a small set of options; Android is
clearly not going away, but it would not be surprising to see an appetite
for a third option among both vendors and customers.
Becoming that third option will not be an easy thing to do, though. There
are a number of contenders for that space beyond GNOME and KDE: they
include MeeGo, Ubuntu with the Unity shell and, naturally, Windows.
Even WebOS could possibly make a surprise comeback.
Perhaps one other Linux-based platform can establish itself as a viable
alternative on tablets; it seems unlikely that four or five of them will.
Competition between projects can be good for the exploration of different
ideas and as a motivation to get more done, but it's hard not to feel that,
if we want to create a viable third platform which is competitive with
Android and iOS, our community's efforts are a little too scattered at this
A related question is: can a tablet-based platform be competitive without
running on phone handsets as well? Neither of the desktop environment
presentations at COSCUP mentioned handsets; if the projects are thinking of
scaling down that far, they are not talking about it yet. There is clear
value in having the same interface - and the same applications - on both
types of device. Android and iOS offer that consistency; alternatives may
have to as well.
And, of course, there is the challenge of third-party applications; getting
this week's hot application ported to GNOME or KDE may not prove easy.
Sometimes one hears that HTML5 will save the day, but there are a couple of
objections that one could raise to that line of reasoning. One is that we
have been hearing that the web would replace local applications for at least
15 years now; maybe it is really true this time, but that has yet to be
seen. And if everything does move to HTML5, alternatives like
ChromeOS and Boot2Gecko may become more interesting, widening the field
So the desktop environments have given themselves a big challenge, to say
the least. It would be nice to see at least one of them succeed; we have
come too far to give up on the idea of a fully free, community-oriented
system on newer hardware. The technology to create a competitive
alternative is certainly there; what remains to be seen is whether it is
matched with an ability to woo hardware manufacturers and get real products
into the market. At this point, the success of Linux on the tablet
probably depends more on that sales job than on what the developers do.
[Your editor would like to thank COSCUP 2011 for assisting with his travel
to this event.]
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