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HP's Tablet Failure: Big Fun for FOSS Fanatics

HP's Tablet Failure: Big Fun for FOSS Fanatics

Since HP announced an end to webOS device development, TouchPad tablets have been deeply discounted and are now flying off shelves for as little as $100. Even at that price, though, you're still stuck with a moribund OS, right? Not necessarily -- projects are afoot to port flourishing operating systems like Android and Ubuntu to TouchPads.

By Richard Adhikari
08/26/11 5:00 AM PT

There may be life yet for the seemingly defunct HP TouchPad. The company has discontinued its development of all webOS devices, leading retailers to drastically mark down prices on the TouchPads they have in stock. Some buyers have been able to score one for as little as $100 -- that's $400 off the initial asking price when the device entered the market a couple of months ago.

Those TouchPads aren't necessarily doomed to support a dead-ended OS, either. Open source hackers have launched efforts to port Android to the TouchPad, and at least one effort to port Ubuntu to the device is reportedly underway.

It's not clear whether TouchPads running Android will become mainstream devices -- after all, TouchPads are no longer being made. But at the very least, porting can provide hackers hours of fun, and it may result in a low-cost tablet that can live a long life with a vital and active OS like Android.

"People love to have a bit of hardware to toy around with,"Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told LinuxInsider. "The TouchPad is now so inexpensive that people may feel they're not putting much at risk."

Efforts to FOSSify the TouchPad

The site Hack N Mod is offering prizes totaling US$2,100 to anyone porting Android -- with various features like audio and WiFi intact -- to a TouchPad.

Hack N Mod suggests potential contestants go to Rootzwiki or the XDA Developers' Forum.

Rootzwiki has launched the Touchdroid project for porting Android to the TouchPad.

There have been reports of some squabbles among Touchdroid members, though project leader Thomas Sohmers, a 15-year-old self-described tech geek, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Early builds by the Rootzwiki team will reportedly be based on Android 2.3, a.k.a. "Gingerbread," but later the team may use either Honeycomb or an upcoming version of Android known as "Ice Cream Sandwich," according to the Lilliputing blog said.

The TouchBuntu Pad?

Apparently, there are also efforts to port Ubuntu to the TouchPad. That's not too far-fetched an idea.

"The new Ubuntu 11.04 release has been built with a scalable UI and would make a perfect operating system on a tablet, so long as the keyboard input method works well," Bill Roth, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at LogLogic, told LinuxInsider. Roth describes himself as "a huge Ubuntu fan."

Further, there are reports that at least one TouchPad actually came preinstalled with Android 2.2.1 on top of an Ubuntu-based system, and that this seemed to have been preinstalled by Qualcomm.

Device manufacturers will test various operating systems on their products, and the speculation is that Qualcomm had been playing with this particular tablet.

The Hack N Mod Prize

Hack N Mod is dividing up the prize money by the function ported. For example, as of Thursday, the prize for a basic port was $950. Add WiFi to win $350, and anyone who can also get the camera to work could win $300.

Hack N Mod is seeking sponsors to increase the prize money.

Entrants have to post their source on GitHub, a Web-based hosting service for software development projects using the Git revision control system.

All work must be documented under an open source license, and ports must have a user-friendly installation process.

Why Android on the TouchPad?

Hack N Mod contends that the TouchPad is a perfect tool for enhancing do-it-yourself projects, especially those using Arduino. Arduino is an open source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software that can be employed to create interactive objects or environments.

It can sense the environment through input from various sensors, and it can respond to that input by controlling lights, motors and other actuators.

The microcontroller on Arduino boards is programmed using the Arduino programming language, which is based on Wiring, and the Arduino development environment, which is based on Processing.

Wiring is an open source electronics prototyping platform. Processing is a programming language, development environment and online community initially developed to serve as a software sketchbook.

Could HP TouchPads running Android be used in the mainstream? Possibly.

"It's like having a relatively high-quality Android tablet for a bargain," IDC's Hilwa said.

"Being able to run Android on TouchPads is about the only thing that will make those tablets usable at last," Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, told LinuxInsider. "HP was getting TouchPads returned from people who couldn't get them to run apps in the first place."


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