Why the Ubuntu tablet matters

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 28, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I am not generally a technophile. I don't obsess over hardware stats, and I judge hardware on how well it does its job. Yet recently, I find myself anticipating the release of three pieces of hardware. One is the pi-topCEED, the Raspberry Pi-based computer for education. The second is the open source keyboard being produced by Keyboardio. The third is the just-announced Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition, which has the potential to be the most important of them all.

In some circles, this statement may sound surprising. Over the years, I have criticized aspects of Ubuntu ranging from its business to its design decisions, to the point that I have been called anti-Ubuntu. Sometimes, I have even suspected members of Canonical Software, Ubuntu's owner, of holding that same opinion, although that impression may have more to do with personal paranoia than anything definite.

However, my comments have never been based on a general animosity, and when I have found things to praise, I have given praise as freely as I have given criticism. For instance, I have nothing but respect for Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's ex-community manager, and I consider the Ubuntu font one of the top dozen free-licensed fonts.

Still, my reputation in some circles means that I have a greater obligation than ordinary to praise when praise is due -- and my hopes for an Ubuntu tablet are almost certain higher than hard-headed realism would justify.

True, the stats for the Aquaris M10 are mediocre at best in comparison to other tablets. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy equivalent  comes with double the internal memory, and can be expand to support twice the memory. However, the Ubuntu tablet interests me because it is the best chance for some much needed reforms in the tablet market.

Tablet reforms
What do I mean by reforms? To start with, when I bought a tablet last year, I was shocked to find that it shipped with almost wide-open security. Rooting tablets, I soon discovered, was not just a bit of geekish bravado, an effort to demonstrate mad skills at the risk of bricking your tablet, but a sensible precaution for anyone with the least awareness of security.

I have not seen any discussion of security on the Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition, but  given its operating system, I have hopes that it will be at least as secure as the Ubuntu desktop. OK, Ubuntu is not in the same league as Qubes OS for security, but it still has a much higher standard than the average tablet.

In the same way, I consider most tablet interfaces a nuisance at best. Although I own a Samsung tablet, my most vivid memory of using it is of making constant selections as I drill down from screen to screen, which with my sweaty fingers mean that I have to keep a tissue handy to keep the screen from becoming a blur of finger prints.

By contrast, the Ubuntu interface, with its swipes from the screen edges, is a more efficient interface -- which means that it should also be literally cleaner than existing tablet interfaces. It is the closest I have seen to the now-defunct Plasma Active, which until now I have described as the only mobile interface I could endure to use on a workstation. At least to a certain extent, the Ubuntu interface promises a comparable experience.

However, my main reason for wanting an Ubuntu tablet is that it is the first foothold for free and open source software (FOSS) in the marketplace. Admittedly, from what I can gather, its BIOS is non-free, which puts the Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition one step behind Vivaldi, Aaron Seigo's gallant but doomed effort of a few years ago. However, the obvious difference between the Ubuntu tablet and Vivaldi is that the Ubuntu tablet is about to become a reality. If it is not perfect, it is still no worse than most workstations and laptops.

As the attempt to bring Vivaldi to the market proved, FOSS has no standing whatsoever in hardware manufacturing. The makers of hardware have no awareness of it, so free hardware is essentially non-existent. If anyone does convince a manufacturer to produce hardware with a free BIOS, they have to be vigilant to ensure that, in the next batch, the manufacturer doesn't slip back into making non-free ones in order to save a little money.

Moreover, today, any attempt to produce free hardware is likely to have a manufacturing run of a few thousand units at best. Compared to the large hardware manufacturers, such numbers are meaningless. They get no priority, and some manufacturers may not want to bother with them. New hardware features, such as a crystal display, may be unobtainable because larger manufacturers have a monopoly on them for several years.

This situation has no chance of changing until free hardware becomes more common. However much Canonical needs to be criticized, it has at least overcome the odds to get a tablet actually made. It is no guarantee that free hardware will become known in the market place, but at least it is a start. Under these circumstances, supporting the effort is necessary if anything is ever going to change.

An honest gamble
These statements do not mean that I expect Ubuntu tablets will be a success. They are coming late to a heavily saturated market. Little in their hardware stats makes them attractive to anyone unfamiliar with FOSS. Moreover, judging from the mediocre sales of Ubuntu phones over the past year, the innovations in the interface are not enough to build a market. My best guess is that Canonical's hardware faces stiff competition and is far from any guarantee of success.

Still, if no one takes a calculated gamble, nothing in the tablet market will change. Just as some people used to add to the difficulty of their personal computing -- and still do -- by using only free software, perhaps it is time to start buying free hardware, even when it is not state of the art.

Anyway, what's the worst case scenario? You're going to be left with hardware that is interestingly different -- a usable conversation piece, if nothing else.

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