The LINUX TABLET IS THE FUTURE - and it always will be
The Penguin Xmas present that'll never be in the present
The year of the Linux tablet is, like the year of the Linux desktop, destined never to arrive.
That doesn't mean we won't see Linux on a tablet, but you'll see Linux on a tablet the way you see it on the desktop - clinging to a tiny percentage of the market.
There is of course Android, which does use a Linux kernel somewhere under all that Java, but when Canonical or Red Hat talk about building Linux tablets, obviously Android is not what they have in mind.
For most, the dream of a Linux tablet means running a distro like Ubuntu, Mint or Fedora on some sort of tablet hardware.
Indeed, intrepid users have already hacked Linux onto Android tablets. But the first shipping Linux tablet looks like it will be the $99 "PengPod," a Frankentablet that will run both Android and Linux proper. The PengPod will, assuming its creators follow through with their plans, arrive in buyers' hands in January of 2013.
Unfortunately, the PengPod seems doomed to mediocrity. The PengPod was funded through the Kickstarter-like site Indiegogo that ensures a market, no matter how small, does exist. But the device itself looks like little more than an off-brand Android tablet with Linux running from a micro SD card. There is also an option to have Linux pre-installed on the internal flash, but those aren't shipping right away.
"Having used a Samsung Windows 8 tablet for a few months, I have a theory as to why: you think you want a full desktop computer on your tablet - I certainly did - but you don't"
The PengPod may well satisfy the enthusiasts who backed it, but it's hardly going to make a flagship example of Linux excellence in a brand new form factor.
In fact the best evidence that there's never going to be a year of the Linux tablet is that it doesn't even look like there's going to be a year of the Windows tablet.
Microsoft's Surface tablet effort is not, according to early numbers and a plethora of anecdotal evidence, flying off the shelves and hardware manufacturers don't seem to be rushing out the Windows 8 tablets.
So far, despite Microsoft's best efforts, the tablet world is still very much orbiting the twin stars of iOS and Android.
Having used a Samsung Windows 8 tablet for a few months, I have a theory as to why: you think you want a full desktop computer on your tablet - I certainly did -- but you don't. It simply doesn't work.
In the case of Windows 8 you can blame some of the "not working" on the buggy, incomplete software that is Windows 8, but not all of the problems can be attributed to a shortcoming of touch APIs.
Much of what makes a full desktop interface terrible on a touch screen tablet is simply the whole desktop paradigm was never designed to be used on a tablet and it shows. The Metro interface for Windows 8 is excellent; different, but in my experience really well done.
Where Windows 8 on a tablet falls apart is when you try to bring the software keyboard to the traditional desktop interface on a tablet. The software keyboard takes up half the screen, which makes even simple tasks difficult. How to you rename a file and move it? First you tap it to select it, then you tap the button to bring up the keyboard, then you type, then you touch away the keyboard, then you touch the file again. It isn't just awkward and slow; it's downright antagonizing.
"Pair a Linux tablet with a hardware keyboard and mouse and you'd have a great little three-piece laptop replacement. Take away the extra hardware and you've got a recipe for frustration."
Contrast that with the iPad, which, though it also lacks a hardware keyboard, was designed from the ground up with a software keyboard in mind. Likewise the Windows 8 Metro experience is so much better than the traditional interface that you'll find yourself groaning whenever an app dumps you out of Metro into the desktop.
The same thing will happen if you just port Linux over to a tablet - even the new GNOME Shell and Ubuntu Unity interfaces have not really been designed for touch. Pair a Linux tablet with a hardware keyboard and mouse and you'd have a great little three-piece laptop replacement. Take away the extra hardware and you've got a recipe for frustration. The different form factor requires more than porting the OS to different hardware, it requires rethinking how everything works.
Android and iOS, whatever faults they may have, at least got this right. And therein lies the real problem for desktop Linux tablets - Android is already better.
While that probably won't stop Canonical from producing an Ubuntu tablet - founder Mark Shuttleworth says the company is already in talks with hardware makers - it will likely mean that Ubuntu tablets will remain a niche product at best.
If not the year of the Linux tablet then what can Linux fans look forward to in 2013? There is a device that just might fit the bill for many a Linux user who thinks they're dreaming of a Linux tablet - the touchscreen laptop.
The touchscreen laptop is exactly the place for an only slightly tweaked OS - touch "optimized" if you will - to succeed. When it's more convenient to touch the screen you can, but when you need to type there's a keyboard available.
This may fly in the face of *nix philosophy - do one thing well - but the hybrid just might be the future of Linux in your lap. ®