In a lot of ways, Linux's relationship with tablets is comparable to the open-source ecosystem's experience with netbooks several years ago. When netbook hardware first began hitting the market in droves, Linux seemed like the perfect companion: It was inexpensive, highly customizable and well suited to new devices where users started out with fewer preconceptions than on traditional PCs.
Yet we all know how that story ended. Linux retained some share of the netbook market, but the Year of the Linux Netbook remained, and remains, quite elusive.
Linux On TabletsAs of now, Linux hasn't fared any better in the world of tablet hardware. Unless one counts Android as a kind of Linux, which is a stretch, none of the tablet devices that currently dominate the market runs on a truly open-source platform.
But that may change. First of all, Linux may have a bright future on tablets in the form of the Vivaldi Tablet, which until recently was available to pre-order for 200 euros. (It was also known until recently as the Spark Tablet, when trademark issues forced a renaming.) Pre-orders have since been closed, reportedly because sales targets were reached with ease.
Unlike the Android-based tablets, Vivaldi runs a real, open-source Linux kernel in the form of Mer. It also uses the KDE project's Plasma Active interface, designed specifically for tablets and other "emerging devices." So far, Vivaldi and the software on which it's built seem to be showing signs of real success, and they represent a key area to watch going forward.
And if Vivaldi doesn't live up to the hype, there's the Kubuntu Active project, which recently took some major steps forward by starting daily i386 builds (ARMv7 versions are still to come) and getting bug-tracking in order. Kubuntu Active is not yet at the same stage of maturity as Vivaldi, but as the first Ubuntu variant designed specifically for tablets, it ensures that traditional desktop-oriented Linux distributions like Ubuntu will not become disconnected from the tablet market.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how the other major user interfaces of the open-source world -- specifically, GNOME Shell and Unity -- might make serious forays into the tablet world. Clearly both environments were designed with non-traditional devices in mind, but so far they've seen little application within the tablet world, beyond a few proof-of-concept experiments.
Will 2012 be the Year of the Linux Tablet? Not in this universe. But it's far too early at this point to write Linux off as a viable platform for tablets -- or to relegate it completely to an obscure existence under the hood of Android devices. It can be much more than that, and may very well turn out to be.