Ubuntu tablet is here. Can it reboot the tablet market?

Is Ubuntu tablet the laptop replacement we've been waiting for?

ubuntu tablet
Credit: Canonical

Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu operating system, has been working on its ‘convergence’ strategy for quite some time. The idea is to run the same code-base across devices, including desktops, tablets, smartphones and even TV sets.

Finally, the idea is becoming a reality. Today the company announced its first Ubuntu tablet.

One of the clear advantages for Canonical with this approach is that it reduces development overhead as they have to maintain only one base operating system. And there are clear advantages for users also: They get to do more with their devices. If this sounds familiar, Microsoft is also trying to achieve something similar with Continuum, though Canonical seems to be the one that introduced the idea first.

A bit about the hardware

The Aquaris M10 Ubuntu Edition tablet is a repurposed Android device. It has a 10.1 inch multitactile 1920 x 1200 - 240 ppi display. It’s only 8.2 mm thick and weighs 470 grams. It’s 7280 mAh LiPo battery should offer decent battery life, but I can’t say anything until I get to use the tablet.

The tablet is powered by MediaTek Quad Core MT8163A (1.5 GHz) processor and 2GB of RAM. It comes with 16GB of internal storage, but you can use a microSD card to expand storage up to 64 GB. I think it’s decent hardware.

Although Canonical has not announced pricing, I am assuming it should be under $300, looking at the Android edition of the tablet.

The mutation

During the video call with journalists, Canonical gave a demo of the tablet where you can see the interface switching from tablet mode (one app at a time) to desktop mode where you can use it with keyboard and mouse. This transformation happens automatically the moment you connect a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to the device.

And if 10.1 inch screen is not big enough, you can plug in a monitor. Now you have windowed desktop where you can run multiple applications just the way you do on a desktop.

Whenever I travel I always bring my laptop with me as both my iPad Pro and Pixel C can’t do a lot of things I rely on a regular desktop OS to do. With Ubuntu tablet all I need a keyboard with trackpad. I can finally leave my laptop home. Or at least that's the promise.

One of the best things about Ubuntu tablet is that you can run legacy or traditional Linux desktop apps such as LibreOffice, GIMP, VLC and what not on it. The downside is that since they were designed for keyboard and mouse as input devices, they may not work very well in the tablet mode. To address this problem, Canonical has been working with developers on mobile apps that are designed for touch interface and are responsive so when you switch the tablet to the desktop mode, they will automatically adapt.

An uphill battle

As exciting as Ubuntu tablets are, it’s an uphill battle for Canonical because the tablet market is in decline. In fact, according to market researcher IDC, tablet shipments in 2015 were down 10.1 percent compared to 2014. The only bright spot in the market is in so-called detachable tablets, those that are most like PCs. While that may be good news for Ubuntu, an added challenge is that it doesn’t have all those millions of mobile apps, games, TV shows, movies and networks that will sell the platform.

Maybe it's just me, but I don’t want mobile apps on a tablet. It’s OK on a phone where you have a tiny screen, but any display bigger than 9 inches can offer desktop grade experience. When I look at mobile apps on my iPad Pro, I get a very bad experience. They are blown out, half-baked phone apps that can’t do things that can be done on their desktop counterparts or simply through a Web interface.

While Canonical is working with service providers and app developers to bring their apps to Ubuntu, I would prefer the Google Docs running in a browser. And it really doesn’t matter if you are watching Netflix in a browser or through a dedicated app. As long as it offers integration with the system in terms of automatic logic and notification, you really don’t need dedicated apps for online services.

The real challenge is desktop apps. There is no Office Suite, there is no Photoshop, there is no professional video editing software for Ubuntu desktop. But you have access to the huge repository of traditional Linux applications such as LibreOffice, GIMP, Gedit, Xchat and what not. Will that be enough?

The ray of hope

I am a hardcore Chrome OS user and I wish Google used Chrome OS on Pixel C instead of Android. Because I can get real work done on a Chrome OS device; something I can’t do on an iPad or Android tablet. This simple fact is reflected in the serious dent Chromebooks are making in the laptop market.

And yet, you can do less stuff on Chrome OS than you can do on Ubuntu. This points to the huge potential Ubuntu has with their convergence strategy.

If, and this is a big if, the major software vendors like Microsoft and Adobe start offering their flagship products for Ubuntu the tables would suddenly be turned for tablets, making them productive devices.

Can we trust Ubuntu?

It’s really tough time for a new player to crack the smartphone and tablet space. Windows phones are almost dead and last year we saw both Jolla and Firefox struggling to keep their mobile ambitions alive.

I sat down with Mark Shuttleworth at SCaLE 14x and, among many other things, I asked him about the future of Ubuntu mobile, about how long he will continue to support it. He took some time to gather his thoughts and then said he is fully invested in Ubuntu mobile and will support it for the foreseeable future.

While we do have other open source projects like Plasma Mobile, I think Ubuntu is the closest thing we have to liberate mobile devices from a walled garden.

What do you think?

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