With the advent of $50-100 mini-PCs it has become painfully obvious that the low-cost computing market is shifting to Android. The mini-PC category is comprised of TV-sticks (MK802), set-top-boxes (MELE A1000G) and gaming consoles (Ouya).
All of these devices ship with Android mainly due to the huge application selection and SOC manufacturers support. According to the latest estimates, devices in this category already sell in the tens of millions range (per year) which is not only impressive but clearly shows a trend. Due to the fact that the hardware strength of these mini-PCs have quadrupled in a very short time-period, we can safely say that they will very soon compete with desktops for a set of roles (improvement from 1Ghz Cortes-A8 with 512MB RAM to quad-core Cortex-A9 with 2GB of RAM in one single year).
Where does this leave desktop-Linux?
Well, without serious adaptation, desktop Linuxes would not be able to compete in this segment mainly because SOC vendors don’t support desktop-Linux technologies (like Xorg). Canonical has already realized this and started moving to the right direction. Ubuntu has one of the best ARM support (I would say it IS the best) and its new ARM versions will be able to run on commodity Android hardware, mostly thanks to the design decision of Mir running on top of stock Android GPU drivers. Others also plan with this in mind (see the recent Wayland-port to stock Android drivers).
While Canonical has done the most necessary steps, they still refuse to support running Android applications which I think is a really bad decision. I don’t think that Canonical/Ubuntu can create a sufficiently strong developer ecosystem which is at least remotely comparable to that of Google/Android. Without this, most of the consumers will never consider replacing Android with Ubuntu on their mini-PCs (or buy a mini-PC with Ubuntu).
I strongly believe that desktop-Linux needs to build on the success of Android. Apart from re-using Android’s hardware support it needs to provide a perfect execution environment for Android applications. This is much-much easier to do than providing Windows compatibility since the two systems are both based on the same Linux kernel and Android sources can be used any time without much constraint.
Due to the extraordinary rate of ARM hardware development, I expect that Android will introduce a desktop-environment soon (this has been rumored for ages) since simply there will be no reason for not entering the desktop space. That will result in a lot of traditional desktop-oriented ISVs to come out with Android versions of their wares. With Intel porting every Android version to x86 right after their release, the new, desktop-capable Android version will gain ground on x86 quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at this point, Adobe’s Photoshop Express for Android gains a lot of desktop-features or a light, Android-desktop-version of Photoshop gets released.
In an environment like this, desktop-Linux can only flourish if it can show extra value and compatibility with Android. Without leveraging the Android app ecosystem (running Android applications) the value proposition seems way too weak to me for the average consumer.
On the other hand, if desktop-Linuxes can run both Android apps and traditional Linux applications as equal citizens, then only the matter of distribution remains. With the added value, these OSes may be more appealing for OEMs, but only if their installation/customization on stock Android hardware is as easy as Android’s itself. With sufficiently strong hardware support and easy installation options a lot of people may decide to upgrade their mini-PCs to desktop-Linux since they would loose nothing but gain access to a set of high-power desktop applications (like Thunderbird and LibreOffice).
With the recent introduction of Ubuntu Touch a very interesting change of strategy is emerging for Canonical.
As Phoronix and others have discovered, Ubuntu Phone and Touch are using SurfaceFlinger as their compositor. SurfaceFlinger uses OpenGL ES to render applications screens/windows in a hardware accelerated way using the OpenGL driver of the GPU directly.
Now, Canonical is promising a completely integrated experience for Ubuntu 14.04 which will run Phone, Touch, TV and Desktop applications in one common GUI environment. How will they be able to fulfill their promise for Linux desktop applications currently running on Xorg?
So far, everyone has believed that the Ubuntu desktop is migrating from Xorg to Wayland. This migration has been going so slow that there is actually no visible sign of happening any time soon. It seems that Canonical has slightly changed the “to” part of their migration plans. They are not moving to Wayland, they are moving to SurfaceFlinger.
I, for one, think that this is a brilliant idea.
Compared to Android’s SurfaceFlinger, Wayland has not much appeal from the “possible benefits” point of view. SurfaceFlinger is developed by Google and is already deployed on countless Android devices. It has a sizable amount of developers working on it and its future is certain as long as Android is with us (which is pretty likely given its current market share and trends). Migration to Wayland hasn’t started in earnest so there would not be much effort thrown out of the window.
With the recent merging of the Android and the mainline Linux kernels, porting Linux desktops to Android hardware has already become somewhat easier. Wifi, Bluetooth and other hardware components can be accessed through the Android kernel released by the producer of the SOC/board. The biggest remaining problems are making Xorg and audio working. Xorg is used by all desktop applications while audio is used by only some (media players, screen-capture apps…etc). Xorg seems to be a fairly big problem because Android hw producers usually don’t provide X drivers at all and that makes the porting effort a show-stopper for hardware which otherwise run Android very well.
An Ubuntu desktop running on SurfaceFlinger would be a much easier subject for porting to common Android hardware compared to the current situation (as the quickly growing number of devices supporting Ubuntu Touch demonstrates this spectacularly). OpenGL ES driver comes with the Android kernel, released by the hw manufacturer, so SurfaceFlinger works right-away.
The most important part of the migration to Wayland has been the GTK and Qt backend implementations. These can also be created relatively quickly for SurfaceFlinger so 90% of the standard Linux apps would display on it right away (Qt may already has Android/SurfaceFlinger support based on their Git repository)
OK, but SurfaceFlinger is only one part of the problem, what about the rest?
It is very much possible that Canonical/Ubuntu is planning to migrate heavily to Android backend services (not only SurfaceFlinger) in order to take advantage of the huge popularity of Android among the hardware manufacturers.
Possibly, a wrapper may be created for the PulseAudio API to execute sound services with AudioFlinger. The opposite was deemed possible by one of the developers of PulseAudio, so it is certainly an option. This would make the typical audio-using Linux desktop application work on top of Android’s AudioFlinger on a stock Android kernel released by the SOC/board manufacturer.
Other Android services may also be targeted in a similar way. Hardware accelerated video playing would be a notable example but acceleration sensor, camera and GPS services would also become easy accessible for traditional Linux applications.
With such a services-migration completed, one could do a mostly complete Ubuntu port in a matter of days to Android hardware and the required skills would be way-fewer than they are now. As a result, Ubuntu would be available for almost every hardware which supports Android. Some of the ports would be done by Canonical (Nexus devices) and most of them by the community (with the Cyanogen community doing the heavy lifting in many cases).
I think this is a good strategy since it brings Linux desktop applications to commodity Android hardware. Personally, I don’t care what backend services allow my applications to run as long as they do it efficiently and without (many) bugs.
Closing the gap between Android technologies and the Linux desktop would allow the latter to stay competitive and make an integrated experience possible. Linux desktops would eventually become capable of running Android applications (Dalvik would be just another Java-like VM, next to OpenJDK and Snoracle Java) Also, Linux desktop applications may become able to run on Android as first-class citizens (by packaging the necessary wrapper libraries to SurfaceFlinger and others).
Why do I think this is a necessity?
It is widely rumored that the next major version of Android will introduce some kind of desktop environment for keyboard/mouse work. This would allow Android to start shipping on desktop PCs. Given the weight of Google, I imagine that PC vendors would immediately start selling x86/PC hardware with Android. They already do it with ChromeOS which is much more limited than Android, so a desktop-toting Android version would easily beat that in functionality (huge number of apps and an ecosystem rapidly growing up to the weight that of Windows).
In an environment like that, desktop Linux would rapidly loose its remaining competitive advantage and very soon the desktop would be dominated by Android alone (only in the Linux camp, not meaning Windows, although I think that it would eventually become a strong Windows-competitor). If desktop Linux is as easy to port to any hardware as Android and runs Android apps next to traditional Linux apps, the competitive advantage remains.
It is way too early to tell if the above is the plan of Canonical but using SurfaceFlinger points to this direction. I would definitely like to see Ubuntu and other desktop Linuxes on every possible Android devices.
Soon after the article had been published, Canonical announced the development of their own compositor (Mir) and declared SurfaceFlinger as a component to be removed from the Ubuntu phablet stack. This mostly invalidates the assumption on their strategy. If Mir will be able to work with binary OpenGL ES drivers of GPU producers, that will probably make Ubuntu easier to port but definitely not as easy as an OS heavily based on Android technologies.
Ubuntu for Android (UfA) is a special form of the popular Ubuntu operating system which runs on top of Android so the user can run Anrdoid apps and desktop Linux applications at the same time. It blends desktop Linux with Android in the perfect manner so both touch-oriented and mouse-and-keyboard applications can be used perfectly and in their natural environment.
I strongly believe Ubuntu for Android is a game changer and that Ubuntu and Android badly need each other. See my earlier blog entry about this.
UfA is still nowhere to be seen, even though it was introduced in February, 2012. Canonical (the developer of Ubuntu) wants to distribute UfA exclusively through phone-OEM partnerships. This is understandable but doesn’t seem to be working out since we haven’t heard of any product announcements by now. Considering the usual product development timeframes, this means that we will not see any UfA capable product this year. In general, the rate of product announcements may mean that OEMs don’t buy into the idea of “Android extended by desktop Linux”.
The situation is aggravated by the possible onslaught of WindowsRT devices. If Surface and other WindowsRT devices manage to firmly establish themselves on the market, it will be a much harder fight for Android. Currently, Android is on the top in mobile, so Microsoft needs to fight the uphill battle with WindowsRT. A well timed, well marketed, spectacular innovation like Ubuntu for Android could give Android the fuel to fight WindowsRT. Seeing the recent announcements of WindowsRT devices, it very much looks like that brand-name OEMs have committed themselves to ship both Windows8 and RT devices in number, which hardly means any good for Android or Ubuntu.
Improving on the situation
The biggest problem is that UfA is practically invisible for the average Android user. UfA needs to get into the hands of users in order to generate a widespread need for it (which in turn can make it a requirement for OEMs).
Several Canonical employees have publicly stated that the company will eventually release this integration work as GPL’d open-source projects. Even if they wanted a business advantage by keeping it closed for a while, that advantage is worthless if the business environment becomes much worse due to the delays (OEMs committing to WindowsRT). UfA should be open-sourced immediately in order to form a basis for its distribution.
Partnering with CyanogenMod
CyanogenMod has always been about features. If UfA needs to be distributed by custom-ROMs (until OEMs catch up) the best place for this would be with CyanogenMod. CYM already supports a wide set of phones and tablets and a lot of people venture to use their ROM on a device which doesn’t get proper OEM updates. For example, my HP Touchpad now runs CyanogenMod 10 and I am impressed with the quality of this distribution. Due to the inability of HP, the Touchpad was a very limited device running WebOS (e.g. no hw accelerated video playback unless via a paid app, fairly slow browser…etc). Now, it happily serves the family both as a nimble browsing device and as a video player (YouTube and videos from the home NAS). The power of the Linux community helped to make the TouchPad a worthwhile purchase.
Canonical could easily set up a project which integrates Ubuntu for Android into CyanogenMod for a lot of devices. In order to avoid bloat, the UfA capable device ROMs could ship with an installer application which download and install the necessary extra components and Ubuntu for Android itself. This way, the base Cyanogen ROM could remain small but any user could transform its device into a full Ubuntu desktop when the need arises.
Selling Canonical branded devices with Ubuntu for Android
Since Canonical has practically no OEM partners, it cannot effectively alienate them (as opposed to Microsoft with the Surface) by selling branded hardware. Seeing the headway with OEMs, nobody could blame Canonical if it turned to hardware sales as a means to more effectively distribute Ubuntu to end-users. Canonical doesn’t have to make money on the hardware, the goal is to put out as many running Ubuntu instances as possible which may generate support contracts.
Naturally, I wouldn’t recommend actually building hardware, only customizing already-available, generic products from ODMs.
How about a Android/Ubuntu stick-PC?
Although Canonical seems to be focusing on phones with UfA, the emerging stick-PC category is also very interesting for a set of reasons. First of all, they cost almost nothing, so the volume may be very high (just what Canonical needs). Secondly, these sticks mostly come with only Android support, but fairly common hardware (like Mali400 GPU, Cortex-A9 cores…etc) so customizing their Android distribution with Ubuntu for Android should not be a significant undertaking. Thirdly, they come with fairly strong memory bandwidth so Ubuntu will work much better than on limited phone hardware. I was fairly surprised how fast an Allwinner-A10 based laptop can run Ubuntu so you can imagine the speed we get with a new, RK3066 based stick. Hardware-wise, all Canonical needs to do is having an RK3066 stick customized with the ODM for the targeted use case (2GB of RAM and 8GB of flash should be the baseline).
With sufficient volume, a $100 Ubuntu stick looks doable. That device would run all of the typical Android apps/games (like Angry Birds, ShadowGun…etc), serve as a media-center with XBMC for Android and turn into a full-blown Ubuntu desktop if the user wants to do some serious work (or just needs the known-and-trusted Linux desktop). Such a stick could be used as a “TV smartener” with an RF keyboard/touchpad (including a decent torrent client like Transmission) or a normal desktop PC when combined with a monitor + keyboard and mouse.
Whatever Canonical chooses to do, it needs to be done quickly, since the current, favourable market conditions (e.g. the relative weak position of Microsoft in the mobile segment) may not remain with us indefinitely.
Disclaimer: The following is only speculation but it pretty much resonates with current events.
Based on the events of recent weeks, it very much looks like Microsoft is heading to make Windows a closed ecosystem (a la Apple). They want to make both the hardware and the OS and third-party applications can only be sold with their approval and only through their App Store (with a 30% commission to Microsoft).
What points to this?
1) It is now widely known that Metro applications will only be allowed to get installed through the Microsoft App store. Windows8 RT – the new Windows variant for ARM-based devices – will only run Metro applications. Even on Windows8 x86 – which is supposed to be the more open variant, costing more – you will not be allowed to side-load a Metro app. Windows8 x86 will be able to run traditional desktop apps, which Microsoft now calls “legacy”.
2) Microsoft made an attempt to completely remove support for creating “legacy” desktop applications with their free development tools (Visual Studio). Seeing the outrage, they quickly retreated and promised to leave desktop development tools in VS but the intention was pretty clear: they want to force developers to stop developing desktop apps and only write Metro apps which can be distributed exclusively through Microsoft.
3) The desktop user interface has been made very unappealing (ugly), all of the eye-candy brought to you by Aero has been killed. Microsoft says that this is for a uniform desktop interface between Windows8 x86 and Windows8 RT but it can be easily seen as on other attempt to make the desktop a second-rate citizen which should be phased out. I, for one, doesn’t see any problem with a configurable Aero which runs all features when the hw is strong enough and runs less features when the hw is weak (or battery life is important).
4) Microsoft has come out with the Surface tablet/notebook hybrids and it intends to sell it under their own brand name. This was a cold shower for their current hardware partners (ASUS, Acer,Dell…etc) which have a wide variety of Windows-based products (desktops, laptops, tablets).
5) Game developers/distributors Valve and Blizzard have criticized Windows8 and its newfangled, closed approach. They also fear loosing their distribution market and getting slapped a 30% Microsoft-tax (the rate of Microsoft’s commission when you sell your application through their store).
If this transition is in fact under way, Microsoft obviously needs their hw partners only until the transition is finished and they are ready to ship their devices in volume. (Without this, Windows shipments could collapse prematurely, since partners would start fleeing platform) After this, they will only need “dumb” ODMs since they want to get the majority of the profit on hardware sales as well. When Microsoft is ready, it simply stops selling Windows OEM licences (just like Apple did anno) and all current partners must stop shipping their wares with Windows.
Hw partners will of course suffer deeply since the majority of their profit comes from selling Windows-based devices. They probably see what is going on since, for example, Acer stood up and used very strong words to discourage Microsoft from their course of actions (“This is not something you are good at”, “think twice”…etc) which is pretty unusual between partners. Other hw partners (ASUS, Dell…etc) remain silent but I am fairly sure that their think-tanks are now on afterburner, trying to analyse the situation and possible escape routes.
Now, the situation of Microsoft hw partners is pretty bleak. The second most popular OS, Mac OS X, is not available for them. If Windows OEM editions become unavailable as well, they will only be able to switch to Linux or Android on their laptop/desktop product lines.
How could the big hw producers counter this threat?
1) Using Android (Linux)
Most of the big-name producers already have Android tablets and hybrids in production so hardware wise they could easily step-up the game. However, Android completely lacks a desktop environment which is essential for productive work done with keyboard and mouse so it is currently good for content consumption but not for productive work. It completely lacks high-quality productivity applications and it will take a lot of time by these are created or ported (a proper office suite, Photoshop…etc). It is rumored that Google is preparing a kind of desktop solution with Android 5 but since it is not expected to support standard desktop Linux applications that will not help the productivity-application shortage at all.
2) Using Desktop Linux(es)
The more clever hw producers (like ASUS & Dell) established a Linux-program long ago (ASUS netbooks, Dells older offerings and its new ultrabook…etc) even if the main purpose was only to squeeze Microsoft for lower OEM Windows licence fees. These producers are not completely unprepared but their sales will still suffer greatly if Microsoft decides to move quickly.
The Linux desktop(s) are absolutely ready feature and usability wise. Unity, Gnome3, KDE, MATE and others are all ready for wide-scale deployment. In fact they may prove more familiar to users than the Metro/desktop frankenstein of Windows8. These desktops have been perfected in the recent years and can actually beat the dumbed-down Windows8 desktop in eye-candy and usability.
Hw-related engineering is also not a problem since there are a huge amount of people and companies which have intimate knowledge of the Linux kernel and available for subcontracting. For example, Ubuntu has a fairly strong backing company (Canonical) which has already proven itself for the hw producers (by providing engineering-services for devices coming with Ubuntu). So customizing desktop Linuxes for their hardware and selling them would be no problem at all.
The Linux-desktop is also much stronger in productivity applications than Android. It has LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Evolution and other fairly usable desktop software. In addition, it can run a wide array of Windows desktop applications in Wine.
However, the commercial application ecosystem on the Linux-desktop land is way underdeveloped compared to Windows and that would make Linux-shipping desktops unviable for a lot of people. LibreOffice may do for a lot of people instead of MS Office but the lack of AutoCAD, Photoshop and other productivity applications may be a deal breaker (some of these don’t run in Wine at all or only very old versions).
General hw support has come a long way in recent years but exotic hw is still badly supported. Nothing makes a customer more annoyed than buying a peripheral (say a webcam) which doesn’t work with their Linux desktop. This also needs a lot of work but the most important hw is supported adequetly now (like wifi, , bluetooth sticks, 3G modems…etc).
3) Android and Linux desktop together
A lot of new devices can benefit from a hybrid like Ubuntu for Android. A Transformer Prime with a docking station could use the Android interface when detached and use the desktop interface for productive work when docked. Due to the recent merging of Android and mainline Linux kernels, this route is becoming viable. Even traditional, non-touch desktops could benefit from this arrangements since Android has a lot of small but useful consumer applications. These can run on the desktop in windowed-mode and used with mouse and keyboard just like normal desktop programs.
So, which alternative?
All alternatives are fairly problematic for the producers’ point of view (from the current. Windows-based, status quo) but I believe the best solution is the hybrid model, since it brings together the ecosystems of Android and desktop Linux. But even in this scenario, the relatively underdeveloped state of the commercial application segment may be a show-stopper so I think they need to work in this direction. Some ideas:
First of all, the producers need to orchestrate their Linux efforts in order to solve the problems within acceptable budgets. Since they need solutions very quickly, it may cost them a lot and spreading these costs may make the task more palatable. The efforts also need to be centered on one Linux distribution because the current variation between Linux distros is simply too wide for the hw producers to stomach (also for cost reason). Ubuntu is the obvious choice here since it is specifically developed for consumers in mind and it is the most ahead of partnerships and market recognition. After the commercial Linux ecosystem becomes big enough, other distros will come ahead in any case.
Hardware producers should very quickly set up an organization which has the sole purpose of making the commercial application ecosystem of Linux viable. Normally, this is not their responsibility but now they MUST make this happen or face the consequences of loosing their market completely. The new organization should directly approach major software providers and provide funds for porting efforts where necessary. Some game developers like Valve are already in the process of creating support for Linux but most commercial app developers would not port anything until demand is high enough (chicken-and-egg) so they need some persuasion to port their applications.
If the hw producers can strengthen the commercial Linux application sector sufficiently quick, they can create an escape window for themselves in case Microsoft really wants to follow the Apple-model and lock-down Windows. If this scenario comes about and only Microsoft and Apple remain standing that would be a complete disaster for the current crop of PC harware manufacturers and consumers alike. If Linux/Android can become a viable contender in the desktop/laptop segment that will give way to a huge transformation on the market with Linux market share reaching 20-30% in only a couple of years.
With the recent announcement of Ubuntu for Android we may hope again that full-blown desktop Java applications may become usable on Android devices.
As you may know, Ubuntu for Android will provide a complete desktop environment for Android phones, tablets and smartbooks. The nice thing is that this environment will be pretty much integrated with Android (like network management for the 3G connection and wifi).
The Ubuntu desktop will be able to run not only traditional Linux desktop applications like Open/LibreOffice and GIMP but it will also be able to execute desktop Java applications like TimeSlotTracker, MindCraft, TED and even developer IDEs like Netbeans (at least I don’t see any reason why not).
I have already tested Oracle’s Java SE Embedded on my HP Touchpad (under the WebOS / Ubuntu combo available for it) and I am fairly satisfied with its speed and stability.
I imagine Java SE Embedded from Oracle will be possible to install on Ubuntu for Android aside from the Java implementations available from the repositories (IcedTea and OpenJDK). The Java SE Embedded is downloadable as a standalone installer from Oracle’s Java SE Embedded pages.
It would be nice if Canonical could include an easy way to install the Oracle’s version of Java SE into Ubuntu for Android in order to make it simple for everyone to install Java applications. However, even if this doesn’t happen you will have the option of easily install OpenJDK/IcedTea from the package manager (which should suit most desktop apps) and install the Oracle JRE if the former don’t work well with your apps.
MeeGo is a flavor of Linux, with a similar purpose as Android in the mobile computing space (being a versatile, open-source OS for phones, tablets and other mobile devices).
I root for MeeGo because it has a lot of advantages over Android and iOS:
- More open than Android, the source code repositories can be read by anyone, and anyone can contribute at least patches. Any device manufacturer can take the source code any time and try to slap MeeGo onto its device.
- Has a lot of optimizations for both ARM and x86 (Intel & Nokia cooperation), so it is relatively easy to deploy it on both hardware architecture. (Important for manufacturers.)
- It uses a more standard Linux kernel than Android so it can follow the progress of the Linux kernel much more closely than Android (continuously better device support…etc).
- It is a real, full-blown Linux system. The user interface – while nicely optimized for touch - is based on standard X-Windows technology, so EVERY current Linux software can run on it without major porting work (e.g. Firefox, Open/LibreOffice, Thunderbird). Tablet optimized and non-tablet-optimized software can run next to each other. Of course you need a keyboard and mouse for the non-tablet apps.
- Imagine the Motorola Atrix: Due to the previous point, you wouldn’t need a separate Webtop environment for desktop applications, one, sophisticated shell can handle all applications concurrently. (in the case of the Atrix, the currently shipping Webtop environment is dumbed-down, static, non-extendable Linux desktop which integrates poorly with the concurrently running Android apps)
- Among other technologies, it can run full-blown Java apps as well, not only Flash, like Android. This could be a strong differentiation in an enterprise environment.
- It is absolutely imaginable to run Android apps in the MeeGo environment if the developers decide to support it (Dalvik is just another VM like the Java VM and dual/quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 with 1GB RAM can run as many VMs as you want). This is going to happen on the BlackBerry Playbook, there is no reason for not implementing it in MeeGo.
I believe Nokia has made a HUGE mistake by choosing Microsoft WP7 for its primary platform. MeeGo has a much better chance of becoming a real, multi-vendor OS solution that seamlessly replaces Symbian. It would give as much differentiation for Nokia as WP7 does and it would fit better with the current customer base of Nokia (a lot of which will never buy a WP7 phone).
As the Adam is approaching its public release, some parts of the specification have changed compared to the originally published spec and there is now some information about the target pricing as well. Of course any of it is subject to change. Some of this information is not even corrected on the official Notion Ink website but was posted on their blog.
The bezel of the tablet has been slightly enlarged (as can be seen on the picture):
There will be four base variants of the Adam:
- PixelQi screen, wi-fi
- PixelQi screen, wi-fi, 3G cellular modem
- Ordinary LCD screen, wi-fi
- Ordinary LCD screen, wi-fi, 3G cellular modem
Both the PixelQi and the ordinary LCD screen will have capacitive, multi-touch interface and 1024×600 resolution, anti-glare coating (matte finish). This is especially useful for reading and outdoor use. PixelQi variant is usable in direct, strong sunlight.
There is no info yet on the HSDPA/HSUPA speeds for the 3G cellular modem.
For internal storage, 16 and 32 GB flash will be selectable.
Common specification elements:
- Nvidia Tegra2 System On Chip operating at 1Ghz (dual-core ARM Cortex-A9)
- 1 GB of RAM (DDR2, 667Mhz)
- WLAN 802.11 b/g/n (previously it was not known whether it will have “n” as well)
- Bluetooth 2.1 EDR with A2DP (for stereo bluetooth headsets)
- External loudspeakers (expected to be good quality for enjoyable video playback), external microphone, headphone and microphone jack
- 3.2 Mpixel swivel camera which will be usable for both taking photos and video calls
- 2 normal size USB ports and 1 mini-USB port
- HDMI output
- microSD card slot
- Docking port
- 3-axis accelerometer
- Ambient light sensor and automatic screen backlight adjustment (this will have a big, positive impact on the battery runtime)
- Manual LCD back-light switch (most useful for the PixelQi variant)
- Standalone GPS chip and antennea (with support for A-GPS quick positioning). The Adam will be capable for navigation without 3G network coverage
- Sound volume keys
- Backside trackpad (this is an interesting part, check the videos on Youtube)
- 24 Wh battery (3-cell configuration). Expected runtime is 15 hours for wifi browsing (recently reported on the blog), 140 hours of listening to audio, more than a week standby
- Operating system is Android Froyo (2.2) with a custom, tablet-enhanced user interface
It is not yet known whether the Adam will have a digital compass (for better navigation and augmented reality apps). It has been asked on the Notion Ink blog comments but no confirmation yet. It would be very much logical to have it in a machine with this hardware level but the long-time omission from the specs indicates otherwise.
Target end-user prices are between $400 and $500 for the 4 variants in the US. Their target is to keep even the fully loaded variant below the price of the entry level iPad.
Availability/release of the Adam is not finalized, but the Early Access Program winners (developers) are expected to have their machines shipped around November 15. Public release should happen soon after in order to make the Adam available for the Christmas shopping season.
The Smart Book is an ultra-modular, ultra-mobile computing device, which integrates an IP phone, a tablet and a netbook into one, Linux based machine. Although, there is not enough information (yet) about the exact nature/working of the hardware/software components, the modularity of the device is stunning.
As the basis, you have a MID / IP phone unit which houses a Texas Instruments Cortex-A8 (likely an OMAP3) SOC with a powerful graphics core and 512 Mb of RAM. This is the computing core of the whole set. It has microSD slot for extra storage and a 1500 mAh battery. You may use this for quick email checking and limited web-browsing if you want to carry only a very small device with you.
When the need arises, the MID can be inserted into a tablet “jacket”. This provides an 8.9″screen and an extra 6000 mAh battery for the computing core (the IP phone). You can use the tablet for comfortable browsing/email reading/book reading and you can still accept phone calls with a bluetooth headset.
If you need to do some serious typing (or run out of the battery of both the tablet and phone-core), you can dock the tablet into a stand with a keyboard which makes the device a proper netbook/laptop and gives you an extra 12000 (!!!) mAh battery capacity. When this happens, you may switch the computing core to a full Ubuntu Linux from the Android you used on the MID. This is done with a dedicated hardware button (called the AI button).
The battery life is not yet known, but if the battery capacity figures are real, it should be brutal. Some assumptions for the web browsing activity on wifi:
- 3-4 hours for the MID alone (1500 mAh)
- 10-14 hours for the tablet set (1500 + 6000 mAh)
- 20-34 hours for the netbook set (1500 + 6000 + 12000 mAh)
Some other goodies:
- One of the cases (tablet or the stand) can house a USB key so it won’t protrude from the device and you can safely ship it, always inserted into the device, removing only when you need to stick it into an other computer.
- The tablet can be used as a secondary display for an arbitrary computer which has a USB port (by DisplayLink technology)
- The MID has an HDMI out so it can directly connect to a TV
- You get a USB-HDMI converter in the pack which can be used independently (e.g. connecting an arbitrary computer with no HDMI out (only USB) to a TV). This also uses DisplayLink at its heart. The converter unit can be inserted into the dock (like the USBkey) so you will not loose it.
- The keyboard dock can be used as a bluetooth keyboard with any arbitrary computer, not only with the tablet/MID combo.
The modular sales method is also well thought-out. You don’t need to buy the whole device in one go for $549. You can buy it one-by-one, $199 a piece.
My grievances with the machine:
1) The seeming lack of computing power. I would like to have at least dual-core Cortex-A9 SOC with 1Gb of RAM. I perfectly understand the design reasons leading to the single computing core solution (only this can result in an affordable price for the whole system) but I still think that the OMAP3 core is not enough for netbook-strength applications like OpenOffice and Firefox and the 512Mb of RAM is very much on the borderline for a Ubuntu Gnome desktop. If this machine had some Tegra2-level processing guts and more memory, I would shout “Ipad killer” and try to register a pre-order entry (which is already available, by the way).
2) The MID should be a real mobile phone with a sufficiently powerful HSPA modem, phone buttons and it should run a phone oriented GUI of Android. This would make the whole idea a one-stop solution for most of the mobile computing needs of the average people (including myself). I hope AI will soon create a version which has a real phone as the core of the Smart Book set.
That said, I believe the concept is brilliant and Always Innovating may very well have created a good implementation which will be successful on the market.
The AC100 smartbook, recently announced by Toshiba, has some intriguing features, worth to blog about. First of all, it is built around Nvidia’s Tegra2 system-on-chip (SOC). The Tegra2 is a powerful, ARM SOC with two generic application processing cores and integrated media cores (AV decoding/encoding…etc). The AC100 is the most promising netbook form-factor machine with Tegra2 to date. (Of course there are a lot of Tegra2 based systems announced, but those are mostly tablets). Smartbooks already on the market (HP Airlife, Sharp Netwalker), suffer from lack of performance (due to a combination of underpowered, single-core, Cortex A8-level SOCs and/or slow RAM) and are not considered as breakthrough products (at least not in the blogosphere).
The AC100 has a chance to be a successful product in the netbook/smartbook category. Although the hardware has some weaknesses (only 512Mb of RAM instead of at least 1Gb, only one USB port, very small resolution LCD), it has a solid brand name written on it, and the Nvidia foundations are appealing.
I expect the factory installed Android 2.1 perform acceptably but I don’t think it is the ideal OS for this device. Android’s touch oriented GUI won’t shine on the AC100 simply because the machine lacks a touch-screen and Android’s software selection is simply no match for this hardware.
Laptop-like smartbooks with keyboards (like the AC100) are much better served with a full-desktop Linux due to the fact, that on these devices, buyers will expect full-fledged applications like OpenOffice, Thunderbird, Firefox…etc. Android would be very limiting for the use cases expected from a netbook/smartbook (editing complex text documents, spreadsheets, using a full-fledged browser, email client…etc). Tegra2 with 1Gb of fast RAM could run OpenOffice and other desktop software with good performance. Instead, it will be reduced to run mini, Android versions of the real stuff (what is available for Android instead of OO and such). I believe, at this point, Android is much more suitable for content consumption, than content creation. In contrast, the AC100 hardware is definitely suitable for the latter and many potential buyers will find Android as insufficient for their purposes.
I just hope that Nvidia & Toshiba get their act together and quickly release an Ubuntu variant for Tegra2 based systems because I am afraid the OS part of their AC100 offering is much weaker than the hardware. The Android 2.1 can remain the factory default but the easy install option of a solid, full-desktop OS should be provided (Ubuntu/ARM is just that). I would also suggest increasing the amount of RAM and the USB ports in order to make the product directly comparable to Atom netbooks (and not be ashamed after the comparison). With these improvements, Toshiba could create a very strong contender for the business of those who are waiting for a powerful smartbook or tablet and not willing to compromise with Apple’s offering.
According to this faq-like post on the official Nvidia Tegra developer site, Ubuntu Linux is supported as an operating system for Tegra 2 based devices.
This is extremely important for both Nvidia and Linux in general since a lot of IT-savvy people find Android insufficient for the netbook form factor and ask for a “real” Linux on these very promising devices.
I tend to agree with this view primarily because Tegra 2 @1Ghz is a powerful SOC for a smartbook/netbook/tablet which can run a full desktop Linux with decent speed. I see no reason to limit Tegra 2 based systems to inferior operating systems like Android or Windows CE (bah). As an example, Windows CE 6.0 supports only 512Mb RAM and only one processor. Since the Tegra 2 has two Cortex A9 cores,Windows CE will not be able to utilize both. Android has no X-Windows on it so it cannot run normal Linux software, only software directly written for Android. In contrast, Ubuntu for ARM supports multiple processors, any reasonable amount of RAM and most of the popular Linux software can be installed readily from the Ubuntu ARM repositories, and even the more obscure sw likely requires only a recompile.
A simple Gnome desktop or Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix user interface may not be perfect for a touchscreen operated tablet but is very useable with the traditional laptop form factor. Some of the Tegra 2 tablets will add a pointer device as well, in addition to the touchscreen (like the Notion Ink Adam) so these machines will be easy to use with a customized, full Linux desktop.
The list of currently known Tegra 2 tablets/smartbooks.
Some performance comparisons between Cortex A9 (like the Tegra2) and Intel’s Atom: