Linux vs the Apple iPad

For years linux has been attempting to gain ground in the desktop market. While successful as a server OS and even recently as the backbone of mobile OSes such as Android and Web OS, Linux has struggled for nearly two decades to make decent inroads onto the average consumers desktop or laptop. Mostly considered a hobby OS by the mainstream, linux distributors need to come to the harsh realization that the desktop market is a place that has been lost to them. In fact that battle for the desktop was over before they even showed up on the battle field. The battle for the desktop OS was during the 1980’s. It’s clear that two and a half decades later the two main players (Apple and Microsoft) are still in the game and not going anywhere.

That said, why continue to fight a battle for the mainstream that the mass majority of consumers could care less about? Without proper commercial software and a steady stream of hardware driver support, the linux battle has been uphill and continues to be uphill.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel for linux. That light is called mobile devices.

What makes mobile devices different? Well for starters, they are all-in-one systems. This means that the end user doesn’t need to mess around with driver issues and complications. It also means the end user is willing to accept simplified software that does specific tasks rather than huge pieces of killer software for extensive work. At least right now anyway.

What constitutes a mobile device? Well, that’s a pretty generic term, but the focus of this article is really on the two hottest types of mobile devices currently sweeping the consumer electronics space right now, smart phones and tablet computers.

Linux has already made begun to make its mark in the smart phone market with Android and Web OS. What makes linux shine on smart phones is the “new market” that has emerged for them. There was no precedence in place for smart phones, unlike desktop operating systems. When linux entered the desktop market it needed to play catch-up with the existing desktop OSes that came before. Namely Windows and Mac OS. For nearly two decades Linux has been playing catch-up with both of these operating systems. But in the smart phone market there has been little to catch up to. The Apple iPhone having a two year advantage is a small enough gap that linux could easily step in and make ground. The same will be true for the emerging tablet market.

Tablet computers have been around for a long time. The problem however is that up until now they’ve mostly remained a niche market, much like linux itself. The reason is because they’ve usually been nothing more then large expensive touch screen convertible laptops running full desktop operating systems. The Apple iPad however, is changing that idea.

The rumors and speculation surrounding the Apple iPad before and during its announcement really put tablet computers back into the public’s focus. It doesn’t hurt that more powerful and larger touch screen smart phones began emerging around this same time. All of it has really helped to give everyone a better idea of what a tablet computer could be.

The introduction of the Apple iPad has been both a blessing and a disappointment to many people. There are many who see the elegance in its simplicity. But there are many others who have found complaints in its lack of (insert missing feature here).

Really we should all be very happy for the introduction of the iPad. At the very least it brings the re-imagining of tablet computing into the consumers focus. Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago when they were building a new Ikea in my local area a news crew interviewed other local furniture stores and asked them what they thought about this Ikea opening up. I think the news reporter thought there were asking a question which would result in a response filled with dread and dismay. However the response they got was anything but. In fact one of the representatives from a local furniture store responded very positively saying (and I paraphrase) “We’re really happy to see them here, because it gets people excited about furniture again. So while they may walk into an Ikea to check it out and see what they offer, they may very well decide that they’d rather spend a little more money and get something nicer from us or one of the other local furniture stores.”

I think the furniture store representative hit the nail on the head with that comment. I also think that comment can easily apply to tablets. The Apple iPad will get people thinking about tablet computers in a new way. But many will walk away from the Apple store not entirely pleased with what the iPad has to offer. As a result they’ll be looking for an alternative that suits them better. It’s a win win situation for everyone offering a similar tablet on the market.

So how can linux enter this game? Well, it already has. Many companies are already looking to include Android as the base OS for some iPad competition. But I think that linux can do better.

Android is a great operating system. At its core it’s wonderful and scalable. That said, the basic Android interface leaves much to be desired. Honestly I can say the same thing about the iPad as well. The iPad is nothing but a scaled up iPhone interface. While Apple has built some great custom applications that take advantage of the larger screen real estate, they haven’t done much to the interface itself. This is precisely where linux can make its mark.
The company HTC has done a great job in re-skinning the Android interface on smart phones. They gave it a nice glossy finish and wonderful widgets that rest on the home screens. The same needs to happen for tablets. But it needs to go beyond that.

Based on a lot of comments regarding the iPad and those who are disappointed in it, many people (myself included) were really looking for a desktop OS that was re-skinned and re-imagined for the tablet. In other words, what people really want is all the power and functionality of a desktop OS with the fit and finish a simplified multi-touch GUI (graphic user interface).

Lets try to imagine what that could be for a minute. But to do that we need to step outside the convention of a desktop operating system as we know it. We need to forget about the idea of a desktop filled with icons and files buried inside folders, buried inside folders and so on. We need to ask ourselves; can grandma use this?
The great thing about multi-touch screens is that they represent a paradigm shift in how we interact with computers. Up until recently we forgot that. It took the iPhone and now the iPad to really show us that it’s not just the hardware that needs to change, it’s the way we interact with the software that also needs to change. Surprisingly this is something we’ve known for a while now. Not all touch screen computers have been unsuccessful. ATM machines and touch screen kiosks have been around for a while and served us very well. But in both of those situations we’ve used software built with large buttons and graphic elements. They’ve also given us little arm strain (gorilla arm) because of our short time using them.

Do to our experience with ATM’s and kiosks we know that touch screens really aren’t great for desktop computing. In fact they really aren’t great for any computer in which a screen stands up vertically in front of us. This includes laptops. That said, touch screens are wonderful and they are revolutionary. They really do allow you to interact in ways you could never do with a mouse and keyboard. But they need the proper medium to exist and be useful. That medium is a tablet. Something that lays in your lap or on the table in front of you and allows your hands to fall upon it rather than outward toward it, hanging in the air.

So now that we have the tablet and we have the multi-touch screen, what changes? For starters we need the interface to be at our finger tips rather than at the tip of our mouse cursor. This means larger buttons or at the very least buttons that can act like they are larger. it also means taking all the strange icons typically found in the tool bars of programs like Microsoft Word and making them larger and hiding them behind a layer or a larger menu button. I realize this breaks conventions and adds steps. However when it comes to a touch screen device you really need to clean up the interface considerably and that might mean taking a few steps back in the speed in which you can get things done. Hopefully that can be made up for in the WAY you get things done.

In short, what we need are good alternatives. We need companies who are now focusing on desktop linux solutions to change their focus and take advantage of the blooming tablet market. They need to rethink the folders and icons approach to computers and consider widgets and methods for multitasking full screen touch applications. We also need them partner up with hardware manufacturers to provide simple solutions. Gone are the days of installing any OS on any devices and playing with it for hours to make it work. I think Apple, Sony, Nintendo and even Microsoft have shown us that people want solutions that just work out of the box. We have enough complication in our lives. We want to get past the technical complication and get to whatever it is we need to do. The computer needs to be the tool to get the task done, not the task itself.

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