The Problem with Tablets and the Spark Solution

It’s real: Tablet PCs have arrived. According to a recent DePaul University study, one in every dozen airline passengers is using a tablet PC or e-book reader at any given moment.

Like many of you, I got a tablet (a Nook, if you’re interested) as a gift this last December (thanks Jeanette!). It’s pretty nice. I read Wired on it now, check news, post tweets occasionally. But it’s moderately frustrating that I can’t really do anything worthwhile on this machine.

The problem with tablets is that they are designed for consumption: of movies, books, websites and the like. People want to be productive while on the go. The size and weight of the average tablet is perfect for productivity almost anywhere. But the software isn’t there to support a productive worker.

What if there was a tablet with a real operating system and a collection of software that lived in the tablet (not in the cloud)? What if you could work on a presentation without worrying whether your carrier had an affordable wi-fi connection today? What if you could then use a USB port to plug your tablet into a projector when the time came to deliver that presentation? At under $300, that’s a purchase even a cash-strapped employer could justify. This machine is the Spark.Spark tablet

Due for delivery in May 2012, the Spark is being developed by the KDE Project, the open source development team behind the KDE Software Collection, the longstanding and popular Linux desktop environment. It runs the Plasma Active mobile desktop on top of the Mer operating system, the successor to MeeGo.

Project developers are working on building an app store, but you’ll also be able to use the Open Build Service (OBS) from the openSUSE Project to obtain apps for your Spark. This is the “productive” part of this tablet, as you could run most (if not all) applications that could run on desktop KDE.

The main initial problem with Spark is that it’s not an especially powerful machine. The 7-inch Zenithink C71 tablet has just a 1GHz processor, 512MB of memory, and 4GB storage space. The display is 800 x 480 pixels. One hopes that future models will have a little more muscle. The good news here is that it has two USB ports and a microSD slot to help you get work done!

This is where I should be telling you how you can get this marvelous device, but I’m late. Thousands of pre-orders at last week reached the capacity of machines able to be built by the May release. You can (and should!) still put your name on the waiting list, though.

For more complete information on this device, and the philosophy behind it, reading through lead developer Aaron Seigo’s blog posts on the Spark is really exciting.

The Spark is a beginning. The prairie fire will hit when more people realize that a tablet doesn’t have to be a toy.

What do you think about the Spark, and open tablets generally? What tools would you like to see in the Spark? What problems are you seeing in the tablets you use? Leave a comment!


10 thoughts on “The Problem with Tablets and the Spark Solution

  1. As I mentioned in a comment to one of Aaron Seigo’s blog posts, I would love to buy a Spark tablet, especially one running my favourite desktop environment KDE, but one of the applications I would want on a tablet would be Skype, even though I use it infrequently. So, if I ever decide to buy a tablet, it would be running Android unless the Spark developers get around to porting Skype.

    I don’t have any desire to use Skype rather than one of the other applications that does a similar job. The problem is that all my Windows-using and Android-using work colleagues, family and friends use Skype, and they have no intention of switching to anything else. So I’m stuck with having to use Skype if I want to chat with them. I’d much rather use an open-source application, but I can’t make all the Skype users with other OSs (and Desktop Linux) change for my sake. It’s a pity, especially as Skype for Linux appears to have been completely neglected since Microsoft bought the Skype company. (As Skype is a de facto monopoly, having virtually sewn up the market, I think the acquisition by Microsoft should have been blocked by the US government and the EU. But that’s another story.)

    Anyway, I hope the Spark is a big success. I’d love to see a 10-inch version with more power (CPU and battery life) and more memory. And if it runs CUPS, Samba, Firefox, Thunderbird, DavMail, Calibre and all those other good applications that I’m used to using on the Linux Desktop, I would be delighted.

  2. These aren’t _just_ two usb ports where you can plug usb devices in. One is host, one is device. Meaning: one you use to attach to your real computer, the other can be used to attach usb devices into.

  3. something for on site business use would be nice. get your invoice signed on site then its sent to the office to be dealt with. be quite usefull.

    1. @simo Another excellent idea. There may already be such an application; I need to get more familiar with the mobile package universe.

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