How Can Linux Out-‘Fabulous’ Apple?

In the collective psyche of the Linux community, there has traditionally been one primary enemy.

Just as Dr. Strange had Baron Mordo, just as Aragorn had Sauron, Harry had Lord Voldemort, and Odysseus had Poseidon, so we in the world of FOSS have had Microsoft.

That, however, appears to be changing.

‘Open Source Needs to Be Fabulous’

“While Microsoft has been relegated to an also-ran in mobile computing, Linux has emerged as the main challenger to Apple,” wrote the Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin in a Businessweek commentary last week.

As a result, “Linux needs to more effectively compete with Steve Jobs and the magic of Apple,” Zemlin added. “It’s important that open-source products add more value for users than simply being free. Open-source software also needs to be fabulous.”

Funny that Mark Shuttleworth was making similar comments about the desktop back in 2008!

How to achieve the goal in mobile is of course the new question — one that’s pervaded the Linux blogosphere of late.

Ubuntu for Tablets

At TuxRadar, for example, a Thursday podcast pondered how Linux devices can beat Apple’s iPad, specifically.

The 451 Group’s Jay Lyman noted that Android excitement is just about on par with that Apple is generating — even amid iPhone 4 hysteria — while recent Gartner data confirmed that Android has sprinted past Win Mobile to become a true global contender.

Then there was word that Canonical is developing a version of Ubuntu for tablets — news that piqued the interest of legions of Slashdot bloggers, in particular.

‘Shuttleworth Must Be Stoned!’

“I hope they hire a UI designer who isn’t an Apple admirer,” wrote neiras, for example. “We need fresh ideas.”

Similarly, “I’m just dying to see the user interface,” agreed vladisglad. “If there is any instance when I need to use scroll bars to scroll in any application it’s insta-fail. Same goes for windows.”

Then again: “Shuttleworth must be stoned!” opined The Darkener.

“8.04’s focus was stability; 9.04’s focus was netbooks; 9.10’s focus was cloud computing; 10.04’s focus was pretty themes (and apparently dyslexia); 10.10’s focus is now tablets,” The Darkener explained. “Am I the only one that thinks that a Linux distro should stick with focusing on doing one thing very well?”

‘There’s Not a Good Business Argument’

And another view: “Don’t think the business model will work,” predicted SethJohnson.

Using the iPad as an example, “the OS isn’t the expensive part of that product,” SethJohnson explained. “Apple sells the iPad for US$499 with the understanding that the purchaser will likely buy several apps and many movies through iTunes. You put Ubuntu on there, and the user can apt-get to bypass the App store. Same with movies.”

The other problem is that “tablets are media consumption devices, and Netflix doesn’t work on Ubuntu,” he added.

So, “using Linux isn’t going to save any hardware manufacturer a significant component cost,” SethJohnson concluded. “And since Android is there for free, there’s not a good business argument for bundling Ubuntu.”

Opinions on that question were all over the board, but the fundamental question remains: How can Linux “out-fabulous” Apple in the mobile world?

‘We Need to Raise Our Standards’

“Give users what they have been asking for,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza suggested. Specifically, “a reliable tablet with good daylight viewability and long battery life, which is either highly compatible with existing distributions out of the box, or at least running a useful and highly modifiable version of Linux like Android.”

For most people, “the ideal candidate has good daylight viewability, Wireless-N, real USB2 ports and a built-in memory card reader; most seem to want HDMI output including 1080p H.264” as well, Espinoza added.

Regarding the interface, Zemlin “is right in a way,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined. “When we wanted to compete with Microsoft, mediocre user interface design was good enough, but now that it’s Apple we need to compete with, we need to raise our standards.”

‘Developers Prefer Freedom’

Yet that shouldn’t be a problem, blogger Robert Pogson pointed out.

“While Apple has brand loyalty and brand recognition, they are falling flat on features and lack flexibility due to the dictates of the Fuhrer,” he explained. “GNU/Linux can beat them on price, performance and features because developers prefer freedom to dictatorship.”

Apple may well keep its share of loyal followers, “but there are billions of potential new customers at price levels GNU/Linux can reach on ARM,” Pogson pointed out. “It may take a year or two to ramp up production and expand share, but GNU/Linux has all kinds of room to grow, whereas Apple has saturated the wealthy nations with its products.”

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