Tablets are interesting devices. They serve as some of the most convenient and effective entertainment and digital consumption methods in our modern society. They are light, yet big enough to not be obnoxious to read on or watch a video on. They also possess excellent battery life, which is definitely needed for convenience. One trait they share is that they run operating systems that are primarily designed with mobile computing in mind.
Given their reliance on Android and iOS in our modern example can they possibly break away from these platforms? It is largely true that only Apple has really found success in the tablet market. Samsung is still hanging on with their Tab series and Google has recently released the Pixel Slate, a tablet that runs Chrome OS, to mediocre reviews. While these devices are running the Linux kernel, they’re not what the community would consider a proper GNU/Linux tablet.
So, what would be required for a good experience on a GNU/Linux tablet? Well, the first thing that sticks out for me in regards to Linux and portability is battery life. Traditionally, Linux has lagged behind its counterparts of Windows and macOS in the area of portability in this area. This is largely due to the fact that many hardware manufacturers are not building their laptops with Linux in mind and ignore ACPI standards and other loopholes to get their Windows certification and optimize as much as they can for that platform. Apple, by virtue of making the hardware and the software, has spent many years optimizing their platform for their hardware. Linux has largely been left to the crumbs that corporations will offer in the way of drivers and the valiant efforts of those who reverse engineer and create new driver solutions for devices in Linux. (Of course I’m talking about the desktop here as servers are largely taken care of in this regard.)
Another area that will need to improve is the user experience. There is a lot of work being done in this area by the GNOME and KDE folks and both projects are valiant efforts. Based on my experience with a 2-in-1 device with a touchscreen, I can say that GNOME seems to be ahead in this regard. The touch friendly interface offered by GNOME Shell and the accompanying GTK apps offers a good solution to this issue. The UX is clean and the human interface guidelines provide the framework for touch-first apps. Touch scrolling, gestures, an on-screen keyboard in apps, it’s all there. I think with GTK, GNOME, and Wayland we could have a cohesive app platform that people might actually want to use.
With the recent buzz about the Pinetab I have to mention about performance. GNOME isn’t known for its featherlight approach to software. If this environment is meant to run on these devices, it will need more power available to it. Qualcomm and Apple dominate the high-end of ARM SoCs. Qualcomm might play ball, but this might put the tablet beyond the hands of many people unless they’re willing to settle with lower-end Snapdragon SoCs. Just look at the Windows on ARM devices. They are rather expensive. Apple does not license their chips to third-parties (much to my dismay as they are spectacular) so they are not an option for a Linux tablet. A mid-range Qualcomm SoC might bring it down to the $300 range and, with some time spent on optimizing GNOME, could provide enough performance for a decent experience.
There will be an app gap, but I don’t think this is that much of an issue. I don’t think initially a GNU/Linux tablet would be serving a public that isn’t already gobbling up iPads and App Store apps. I think this would be for the tinkerer, the SysAdmin, the road warrior developer. It’s a niche device, but even the niche OS it offers has found a life of its own among a wide variety of the population. I think that the clever developers of Linux software, aided by projects like Snappy and Flatpak, could deliver a viable app platform.
I do believe, despite all these hurdles, that a GNU/Linux tablet could be a reality. I know my choices on hardware and software will not be that of many others, but I think my points are valid. The potential for a device like this is a great one and the customizability of Linux will definitely see that these have a home with a wide swath of users. I just wonder if GNU/Linux tablets should be relegated to that of a $79 bargain bin level tablet or elevated to the greatness of the Tab S4, Pixel Slate, and the crown king of tablets, the iPad. Personally, I think the future is bright for GNU/Linux tablets, so now might be the time to start learning some of that GTK goodness.