Can A Truly Open Source Tablet Carve a Niche In the Market?
Nick Gilbert
at 12:53 PM Feb 6 2012
The Spark
Gadgets // 

Over the past couple of days the internet discovered there was a new, open source tablet in the works. It's been built to try and deal with the particular qualms some users have with using the major tablet OS's - the extreme limitation or "walled garden" imposed in iOS and Windows 8, and the licensing restrictions (and the lag between Google's development and release of source code) with Android. The question, though, is this: do enough people actually care?

Known as the Spark, the device itself is a 7'' tablet, with a modest 800x480 screen res, 1.3 megapixel front facing camera, 4GB of onboard memory and 512 mb of RAM. 

The real potential drawcard is that it will be running open source software - the Plasma Active spin-off of the popular KDE graphical environment, built on top of Mer, itself a fork of the Linux-based Meego (which some may remember is what Nokia planned to use as their flagship OS before swapping over to Windows Phone).

The main person behind the project is a man called Aaron Seigo, a developer on the KDE Plasma Active project. His manifesto, so to speak, is simple:

"This is a unique opportunity for Free software. Finally we have a device coming to market on our terms. It has been designed by and is usable by us on our terms," he wrote on his blog

"We are not waiting for some big company to give us what we desire, we're going out there and making it happen together. Just as important: the proceeds will be helping fuel the efforts that make this all possible."

The device is designed to be heavily customisable - essentially anything you could do with a Linux-based system, you can do here. The main difference between the two is that the UI is designed to be cross platform, with features like an add-on store included to make it easier for Linux neophytes to make full use of the device.

The device will retail first of all in Europe for 200 euro (about $245 in Australian coin), which is not dirt cheap, but still better than any of the most well know tablet computers. The tablet will then retail in other regions based on demand, with worldwide shipping from day one. In any case, in Seigo's own words: "We aren't trying to sell the cheapest hardware possible. We're creating, and supporting the creation of, an open platform that treats you as more than a consumer."

And yet, we live in a world where iPads are selling like hotcakes - 15.4 million were sold in October, November, and December of last year alone, more than any single computer manufacturer sold PCs in the same period. Even in a Windows/Android world, iPad is the word on nearly everyone's lips.

And those sales are not, I think, fundamentally to do with the hardware of the iPad 2. In my own conversations with people, prospective buyers are usually (but not always) more interested in what magazines and books they can subscribe to and what apps they can download, than whether they can redesign the interface, code efficiently on the move, or whether or not they can install Android on it (incidentally, you can install Android on the Spark if you like, as well as the yet-to-be-released Windows 8).

The reality is that the Spark is not for them. It's not, and will likely never be for the vast majority of the market that Apple, Google and Microsoft all want a piece of. The Spark is for those of us who want to program, hack, and design on the fly. For those of us who really do want to do whatever we like with our device without all the frustration and fiddling about involved with Google and Android, or, for that matter, the blank stares from Apple. For those of us who want to play Battle for Wesnoth on a 7'' form factor. And, at $250, there probably is a market for that. 

The question I'm most anxious to find the answer to, though, is exactly how many out there who would otherwise want a tablet have held back this long because they didn't like Android nor agreed with its principles. 

Because for projects like this to work, people have to plonk down some cash. And just speaking for myself, I truly don't know if I'm principled enough to care. 

Perhaps others are.

[HT Ars Technica, Engadget]

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