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Will FOSS Jump Into the iPad Fray?

Will FOSS Jump Into the iPad Fray?

The iPhone opened the world's eyes to smartphones, creating a category that quickly headed toward "must have" status. Then, along came the open source mobile OS, Android. Some predictions suggest that it could overtake the iPhone in just a few years. Now, the question is whether Apple can create another must-have category with the iPad -- and whether open source competitors will arise to take it on.

By Katherine Noyes
02/02/10 5:00 AM PT

The iPhone propelled the smartphone onto the front lines of cross-platform competition, and now Apple's new iPad has the potential to do the same for the new category of tablet devices.

Positioned somewhere between the smartphone and the laptop, the new tablet is billed as "the best way to experience the Web, email, photos and videos."

While the Macintosh, Windows and Linux platforms all compete to varying degrees on PCs, netbooks and smartphones, the iPad currently stands more or less alone in the tablet arena. It's clearly just a matter of time before competitors begin arriving; will an open source device be among them?

An Affinity for Mobile

It is on mobile devices that many argue Linux is finally coming into its own in the mainstream.

Linux accounted for roughly a third of the 35 million or so netbooks to ship globally last year, according to Jeff Orr, an analyst at ABI Research, and predictions looking ahead are generally rosy as well.

On smartphones, meanwhile, Android had snatched up 27 percent of the North American market by the end of last year, according to AdMob's December Mobile Metrics report -- and that's surely increasing daily following the launch of Google's Nexus One.

Why not tablets, then?

Android Leading the Charge?

"I think open source will compete with the iPad in a variety of ways," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady told LinuxInsider.

First, "we will almost certainly see the Android environment positioned by one or more vendors as an iPad alternative," O'Grady predicted.

Open source projects such as GNOME, meanwhile, are already "actively working to add features like multi-touch, which would make more general-purpose Linux distributions such as Ubuntu more competitive," he noted.

Finally, forthcoming netbooks based on Google's Chrome OS -- "while significantly differentiated from the iPad in both hardware and software -- may well compete for the same users and use cases," he said.

'Faster Development in Open Source'

"I don't really think iPad should be compared to a netbook," Jay Lyman, analyst for enterprise software with the 451 Group, told LinuxInsider.

"While both are intended to be ultra-portable as a primary feature, they serve very different uses and needs," he explained. "I believe the more appropriate comparison for iPad is to e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle, though with broader multimedia and Internet capabilities."

Although Lyman hasn't yet heard of an open source-based push for a tablet operating system, "I will say that we typically see faster development in open source, so I would not be surprised to see an open source response, or an existing effort gain attention and traction, particularly if iPad is as successful as the iPhone," he said.

Bigger Role for Third Parties

In fact, while Apple excels at creating buzz, popularity and loyalty, "there are some shortcomings in its approach -- both technically and aesthetically -- that leave opportunity for other vendors and other approaches," Lyman asserted.

The development and promotion of Android is a perfect example.

"This open source-based alternative appears to be giving Apple significant competition in smartphones and developers," he explained. "I believe this is based less on the technology or functionality, and more on the flexibility and potential for third parties to have a role" -- something that can be enabled by open source.

'A Viable Option'

The iPhone has just one hardware manufacturer, whereas "for Android, there are many, and they are growing," Lyman added.

Similarly, he opined, "if Android or Moblin or Ubuntu Netbook Remix or another open source alternative can serve as a viable option for many hardware, wireless, other software, advertising and other companies -- as well as developers -- it may be able to generate traction and winning devices and/or business models for tablets."


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