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Why the Desktop Mode is necessary on Linux-based tablets?

September 4, 2011 4 comments

Many have predicted, that tablets will replace netbooks completely. While I cannot agree with this absolute statement, I admit that tablets serve a set of use-cases better than netbooks. The touch-interface and low power-consumption of tablets make content consumption more comfortable (e.g. no heating, no fan-noise, longer battery runtime, less weight to lug around…etc).

That said, there are areas where tablets just cannot give enough. For example, any kind of work which requires more serious input while being mobile. The problem of efficient input can be solved with accessories like a bluetooth mouse and keyboard. Usually, when you prepare your tablet for extra-home journeys, you buy a case which also hosts the keyboard.

If we stop here for a moment, we may realize that a tablet in a foldable bluetooth keyboard case is actually a modular netbook (or a smartbook if you like) which is capable of loosing its keyboard for added mobility. This realization, however, is imprecise because the typical netbook software stack is mostly missing: a full-featured office suite, a browser with your favourite extensions and all of the desktop bells-and-whistles you are used to.

How could we improve on this situation?

In the case of Linux based mobile operating systems like Android, WebOS and MeeGo, the answer is fairly simple: bring back the Desktop Mode as the second work environment besides the touch interface. Desktop Mode may automatically activate when you attach a keyboard or a mouse and runs all of your traditional Linux desktop applications. The user is of course should be allowed to easily switch between touch-mode and desktop mode (preferably with a dedicated hw button)

If you think this as a lunacy, think again. Microsoft has already announced that Windows 8 will have this double nature (the metro UI for touch applications and the desktop for traditional applications).

Some people think that the typical ARM based tablet hardware would not be able to run desktop heavyweights like OpenOffice and Firefox. They are wrong and nothing proves this better than the Ubuntu ports already done for the Toshiba AC100 (a video about it is here). This video clearly demonstrates that Tegra2 level hardware with even 512Mb of RAM (and run from an external SD card)  is capable of running these applications with acceptable speed (e.g.: cold startup time of 8 seconds for OpenOffice 3.2 Writer). We can safely say that a HP Touchpad’s dual-core SOC overclocked to 1.7Ghz will run these applications significantly faster from the internal SSD and with 1GB of RAM. An even more powerful, Kal-El (Tegra3) based tablet with 1-2GB of RAM will clearly pass Atom-based netbook performance.

Of course, there have already been attempts for providing the Desktop Mode for Android machines. The Webtop interface of the Motorola Atrix is fundamentally a desktop environment, albeit a very limited one.

As I have suggested recently for the HP Touchpad, I believe that every Linux based mobile OS should provide a lightweight desktop environment and a full complement of desktop applications by default (or at least an extremely easy way to install them). Only this way can they counter the very real advantage a dual-mode Window8 would have.

Categories: linux, smartbooks, tablets, ubuntu
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