Will the Spark Tablet Ignite a FOSS Fire?

Now that webOS is making its merry way along the open road, there’s no telling what tablets or other mobile devices it may inspire over the upcoming months.

The Spark

The Spark

In the meantime, the Linux world is all abuzz over what promises to be the very first fully open tablet out there: the Spark, a device slated to ship in May from none other than the KDE Plasma Active community itself.

The details have been coming fast and furious; preorder signup begins this week. Will FOSS fans jump at the chance? That, of course, is the million-dollar question ringing through the blogosphere, on Slashdot and beyond.

‘I Have High Hopes’

“I’m still not sold on the tab format, but I bet it would work better as a full computing device than a scaled-up cell phone,” ventured consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

Indeed, “I’m really excited about the ‘Spark’ — if it truly is fully open, it will be the first ARM tablet of its kind,” enthused Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland.

“I have high hopes that this device can truly deliver what so many other ARM devices do not: a fully open system,” Hoogland added. “So many ARM devices are a nightmare to work with alternative operating systems on due to closed binary drivers; heck, even the Raspberry Pi will be shipping with a closed-source GPU driver.

“I hope the Spark is the first of many devices to change this trend,” he concluded. “Closed source software does not encourage innovation — it stifles it.”

‘They Are Clearly on the Right Path’

Similarly, “I applaud the effort,” agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “I wish them success. And even if they fail and eventually give up, at least it will have been an interesting failure.”

Based on the project’s initial announcement and FAQ, “I think they are clearly on the right path,” Travers opined.

Of course, “this doesn’t mean they will be able to make it work,” he pointed out. “It does mean, however, that they at least have a shot (probably after several failures!) to get it right and bring a truly open tablet to the market.”

‘It Is a Very Hard Sell’

Openness is “a remarkable thing,” Travers mused. “It’s very valuable, but it is a very hard sell to consumers, perhaps because consumers don’t realize how closed their systems are, or perhaps because consumers are more comfortable with appliances than with computing devices.

“It is my hope that they score enough sales with the geek community to get the funds to get things right over a couple iterations,” he said. “Then they can make a more general push to the general market.”

Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, wasn’t convinced.

‘The Wrong Device’

Lim has no plans to buy a tablet himself, but “it is good to see Linux entering the tablet space,” he began.

Unfortunately, “the Spark is the wrong device to start with,” Lim opined.”As pointed out by Slashdot, this is a rebranded version of the Zenithink ZT-180 C71, an Android 2.3 tablet,” he explained. “My first issue is the price: the US$138 Android tablet is transformed into a US$260 Linux tablet. By the time this hits the market, Android equivalents will be selling for US$99 or less.”

The Spark’s hardware, meanwhile, “is lackluster,” Lim said.

‘You Really Have to Love Linux’

Its 7-inch WVGA (800 x 480) display, for example, “won’t do a great job of presenting the nice-looking KDE interface,” Lim predicted. The 3000 mAh battery, meanwhile, “will provide less battery life than its competitors.”

The current 7-inch Samsung P6200 Galaxy Tab comes with a 4000 mAh battery and Amazon’s Kindle Fire comes with a 4400 mAh battery, Lim pointed out.

“I can almost see the first reviews: ‘Poor display, sub-par battery life and overpriced,'” he concluded. “Might be a good tool for developers looking to develop apps for the second-generation Spark and other upcoming Linux tablets, but you really have to love Linux to want this tablet.”

‘Absolute Trash’

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, took a similar view.

“Now there’s a gutsy business plan: take an obsolete Zenithink C71 that sells for $120, with everything nobody wants in a tablet — bad battery life, no Android or Apple app support, no app store, single core, the lowest-spec video camera possible — install KDE on it and and tell the world you’ll sell it for more than twice as much,” Hudson said. “By this summer you’ll be able to buy quad-core tablets that run the latest Android for the same $260 price.”

Even aside from price, however, “the software is absolute trash,” Hudson opined.

In short, “it’s a safe bet there won’t be enough pre-orders to actually put the Spark into production,” she predicted.

‘The Dell Problem’

And again: “While it’s nice in theory, you can buy the exact same unit from the exact same vendor with Android for nearly 35 percent cheaper,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet observed. “THAT is the problem in a nutshell.”

For consumer devices to do well, “either you have to find a niche, like Apple with the boutique high-end market, or you have to get massive economies of scale like what MSFT does with OEMs and system builders,” hairyfeet explained.

“The problem with these small runs is you simply can’t get enough of a deal from the ODMs to get the pricing that say Cowon or Asus gets because they are literally buying these chips by the shipping crate,” he added.

“Basically you run into what I call the ‘Dell problem,’ where you end up trying to compete with someone like Dell that is only making on average $8 profit per unit sold,” hairyfeet concluded. “A smaller group simply can’t stay afloat.”

So, “when the average consumer sees this or the exact same unit with Android for $80 cheaper? It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “There simply aren’t enough people that value software freedom more than an extra $80 in their pocket.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

1 Comment

  • I’ve been watching for a long time for a tablet that lets ME be the owner, lets ME be in control. Looks like the standing nominee is Always Innovating ( It’s real Linux, offers a bunch of options, including convertible format and a pocket sized second screen, built in. It’s not a hundred bucks, but it looks like a great product from what I can see.


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