Are there really open source iPad alternatives? A follow-up.

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An ereader

The comments here and elsewhere to my post about iPad alternatives have been mixed. No surprise. There will always be Apple defenders and open source defenders. Still, I'd like to take a minute to talk a little more about the topic, address where the majority of the comments fell, and discuss a few more non-iPad options.

Are they really alternatives?

Many people mentioned that several of the iPad alternatives don't count as alternatives because they aren't available. I think that means they're not alternatives if you must buy a tablet today. And unless you're the person who must have every new gadget the minute it comes out, that's perfectly OK. (I'm not one of those people.) There's nothing wrong with looking at what's coming and buying when the technology is ready.

To me, the tradeoff of waiting a little longer for a non-iPad option is absolutely worth it. I don't completely avoid Apple products, although I wouldn't argue with anyone who did. I have a MacBook Pro, and late last year I started looking at tablets. Something small, portable, with a stylus, particularly for artwork. I was hoping the much-anticipated Apple "tablet" would be a functional PC type of tablet, similar to some of the tablet PCs already on the market. When the iPad arrived, I was disappointed along with many others to see that it wasn't much more than a giant iPod Touch.

About the Touch Book--A must-have or must avoid?

I agree with users like Drew Kwashnak and Michael Howell who say that the TouchBook is clearly the most compelling of the options--on paper. (Should that be "on screen" these days?) Unfortunately, I've heard some of the same things chad mentions--that on delivery, it's not what it seems to be. Does anyone have firsthand experience to share?

More alternatives

Several people mentioned more open source tablet options--including real, available right now options. Thanks! I'll be posting about those later this week. If you know of others, leave a comment here.

The bottom line

Here's what it comes down to for me: The iPad is designed for consuming. I want to create. And because of that, for me, the list of negatives greatly outweighs the list of positives. Of course, if this device is truly doing what you want and need, that's great. That's what's important. But I'm willing to wait for something better. Something meant for sharing. Something more open.

Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


"The iPad is designed for consuming. I want to create."

I love that.

I understood from the launch that graphics and "office suite" applications for the iPad were either available at launch-time, or within the foreseeable future. I don't see a need in my life that the iPad solves, but I'm open to the possibility that in 12-18 months, iPad version 1.1 or even 2.0 will edge closer to my portable digital device needs. Let's see what you can do with it in April, 2011. As it is now, the iPad seems a "sofa-computing solution."

Disclosure: for 7-8 years, I used a Casio Cassiopoeia PocketPC as my daily "second brain": keeping appointments + notes + task lists, listening to music, reading eBooks, looking up reference questions, playing a few old-fashioned games. I didn't need or crave WiFi or browsing -- computers were usually nearby (or my latest phone provided that).

I salute your bottom line!

The first one is the best I have seen. The others are pretty good as well.

I also expect that you have heard about the other two but I see almost nothing reported on the Adam.

This looks interesting - just renamed the product from WePad to WeTab.

No idea if this is a legit product (or will be).

I salute that bottom line too :-)

The iPad is another example of Apple's focus: customer experience. They remove the biggest detractors to the whole "user experience" such as Flash and lock down the hardware, OS and even the programming languages the system will handle in return for stability, consistency (and profitability).

Apple focuses on making the system do what people want; long battery life, look (and feel?) good, familiar yet innovative interface, bright screen, etc.

Open source, though, fights attempts at consolidating what is needed for this "customer experience". So far the most focused distribution I've come across is Ubuntu and at the same time people are complaining about it.

So even waiting for the Linux/ChromeOS/whatever tablet, is that really going to be any different than installing what is already available on an already available convertible laptop/tablet? Not unless somebody goes the extra mile to "put it all together".

Maybe if Google does this, otherwise the competition is pretty thin.

I think the tablet market will be effectively snuffed if we continue to refer to these gadgets as "PCs" or "personal computers." The term(s) has been too closely aligned with a CPU box, a monitor, and two or twelve input devices, with an optional mobile appendage (or two or three) off to the side for portable data or media use, or more recently, a powerful or stripped down laptop version of the above device.

The successful "tablets" or "personal digital devices" have been operating on a different paradigm, be it "phone plus other stuff," or "media player plus other stuff," or "Internet device plus other stuff" (or as often has been the case on initial launch, "$DEVICE minus useful stuff they couldn't get quite right", e.g. read-only calendar, or a calendar that didn't sync with anything users already had). I have to credit Jobs & Co. for realizing that a tablet need only be an oversized iPhone/iPod Touch, not a full-fledged computer -- the current MacBooks accomplish the computer's job in about the same form factor.

I think Ruth's criticism that the iPad is primarily a device for browsing and consuming media is apropos, but not necessarily a failing of the iPad. If the iPad is only a replacement for a portable web browser, phone/message/social network/online chat terminal, eBook reader, media player, and interactive entertainment console, then it probably fits the bill. The tech-savvy among us want more, but mainstream consumers may be happy to simply, um, consume. It's kind of disheartening if that's all any personal digital device can do. Apple's latest "killer app" may succeed by only appealing to the lowest common denominator, and that's just plain depressing to think about.

Freescale has an interesting reference design for a tablet w/ keyboard docking station based on their iMX-515 (1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8), with 7" 1024 x 600 touch screen, 512MB DDR2, camera, and 12 hour battery life. "Consumer products based on the design are expected by Freescale to start shipping by next summer, with prices expected to fall under $200." Not sure what "next summer" means -- article is from Jan 2010.

Marvell is working on something called "Moby", a $100 tablet computer aimed at students... kind of like OLPC with an actual $100 price tag. It's based on a 1GHz Armada 600 series processor, a high-end ARM variant. Not a lot of details at this time.

It will be interesting to see what comes out this year, how they do in the marketplace, and how open they really are.

Looks like Dell may be offering a Tegra-based 7-in tablet to complete.. and it should be running Android 2.1!

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(or at least they are planning on).

So HP buys Palm and there is talk already about them planning on offering a slate-like tablet running the WebOS.

Be interesting to see what comes from all of this!

It used to be that we saw people going around with rather large calculators on their belts. Now we can carry around an iPad on our belts! Well not really... My question is, if the iPad is nothing more than a large form factor iPod Touch, what's the point? Portable? Yeah, but I can't put it in my pocket. I guess I'm just too old school, but why would I want something that doesn't give me anything more than what I already have when what I already have fits in my pocket and I have to carry this new thing around.

Ruth: I think you are confused. Don't lead yourself astray. You say: "The iPad is designed for consuming. I want to create." Sounds deep but what do the words mean? I work with lots of creative people and they focus their creativity by ignoring distractions. Why create anything unless it is for others to consume? The iPad is the game changer. You should be focusing on what you can create for people to consume on the iPad, not continuing to distract yourself with busy work by dragging tools optimized for the desktop onto a tablet. Use the force, let go. Stop fiddling and start thinking. Ninety percent of what people do on computers is fiddling. Ninety-five percent of what programmers do on computers is fiddling. I'd say 100% of the use of Flash on web sites is to distract the public from the fact that there's nothing there. The iPad you see is not the iPad.

"The iPad is designed for consuming. I want to create"

Really? This is a popular meme, but I have to wonder did you actually look in the app store?

I'm no fan of Apple's nannyish tendencies, but there's nothing FOSS that even comes close to the iPad.


The iPad is what the apps you get make of it. You can certainly "create" with one; Apple's own productivity apps are there, for instance (though frankly I'd rather get fingernails pulled than try to write much using the virtual keyboard) and there are (much better!) things like Sketchbook Pro.

Seriously, Sketchbook Pro and a stylus gives you a portable version of what you used to (just a few weeks ago!) have to pay a few thousand dollars for, between the $900 for a Wacom Cintiq 12X and the price of the PC and the hundreds of dollars you'd spend on Adobe Creative stuff.

The iPad is less expensive than the Cintiq alone, and Sketchbook Pro is a staggeringly cheap $8 (I can't imagine that price will last). To put it bluntly this is one hell of a bargain to a creative type. I think this opens the door not only to creativity, but even creativity at costs mere mortals can afford and with superior ergonomics to boot.

Out of the box the iPad is clearly a content consuming device, but out of the box a Windows PC is not much different -- and you can certainly be creative on those (until they get eaten by malware anyway).

I know that the real irritation is that Apple has to approve everything that goes on these things, and as a geek myself this annoys me because it means, for instance, that it is more difficult to build my own applications or to get non-mainstream applications that Apple might not approve of (like a decent WiFi scanner, since those require use of private APIs).

On the other hand, and I think it's very difficult to overstate the value of a malware-free environment to almost everyone, and particularly to those people who have become familiar with the disaster that is the Windows computing environment.

Whether this trade-off is good or bad depends on your point of view, but I think it's inarguable that even a "closed" ecosystem can be extremely useful, even in a creative sense, and it's disingenuous to suggest that the Apple stuff cannot be used in this manner. The only way you could possibly believe otherwise is if you hadn't actually tried to use the devices in that way, or bias has made you completely blind even to the possibility. The *actuality* is that people are using them in this way.

Having said all that, I welcome as many competitors as we can possibly get in the market. Competition improves the breed and reduces prices and that's good for everyone.

Getting to open source, I have to say that Android has a heck of a lot of catching-up to do (and I think almost every viable iPad competitor is going to be Android). It (as evidenced by the phones) isn't anywhere near as polished as the iPhone OS nor does it have anywhere near as rich an app ecosystem. I hope (expect) that both will mature, and certainly they've come a long way already, but I am worried that it will suffer the same fate as UNIX: Death by a thousand variants. There is, as you might already have noticed, more than an inkling of that already in the Android phone market.

The thing that really ought to be worrying the Android tablet makers is that "openness" is not going to sell product in significant numbers -- price is. I have long thought that Linux in general will win primarily because it is royalty free; once it got "good enough" there were real incentives to use it, and it is so very good today.

Unfortunately, as much as it's vogue to complain about Apple's high computer prices, looking at their iPod and iTouch and iPhone and iPad prices they are getting very, very good at leveraging high volumes to keep prices very close to what the competition can possibly make money on, and they're doing it while retaining excellent margins.

Consider that the competition was expecting the iPad to come in at $800 and Apple undercut that by nearly half right out the door, despite gross margins of almost 100% *at the low end* and much greater than that on the rest of the line. Everyone figured they could make a $600 unit, easily undercutting Apple ... and they can't. That has led to a lot of scrambling as to how to make the things cheap enough to compete without cutting back on the hardware so much as to make them terrible (like a lot of the netbooks).

And that comes full circle back to the argument about wanting something more like a full tablet PC than a big iPod touch. Recall that those full tablet PCs hit the market in 2001 or so at $2000 -- almost twice the cost of laptops with essentially the same hardware -- and nine years of market "development" shrank the price to around $1000 today. Sorry, but you're going to have a hard time making a full-function device at price points like the iPad offers and still make money at it.

Moreover, the argument is silly. The form factor does not lend itself to attaching lots of stuff to the device. Unlike a laptop where it is reasonable to operate in a connected desktop mode, tablets suck when there are wires going to them. I think Apple is cutting the hardware feature set just about perfectly and that other makers should sit up and pay attention. One USB port is enough (and the iPad has one with a small adapter).

Sun Microsystems used to say that "the network is the computer," and in the case of a tablet computer I think the network makes or breaks it as a general computing device (and is the reason why I think the WiFi-only iPads are a lousy buy). Here I think the competition has a hell of an opening: Apple does not (yet) provide the network services you need to make the thing really useful as a general computing device. Remote filesystem and printer access in particular are nonexistent, and it cries out for both. We're left to shuffle data in inconvenient ways, or not have access to it at all. I'd be surprised if that opening lasts very long though, and it's not clear that the early Android devices are going to do much better out the door; I rather expect them to be little more than iPad knockoffs -- more potential than competition.

It'd be nice to be wrong though, and at least this time around they're not going to cede the market to Apple by default for several years.

jim frost

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