Spark: The first free-software, Linux tablet is on its way

Thanks to Android, Linux is well represented on tablets, but there hasn't been a free software tablet, without any proprietary bits, until now. The Spark, which will be based on MeeGo and use KDE Plasma for its interface, will be the first free software tablet.

Say hi to Spark, the first free software, Linux tablet.

Say hi to Spark, the first free software, Linux tablet.

Open-source software and Linux, thanks to Android, is well represented on tablets. But, if you didn't want to deal with proprietary firmware and software, you were out of luck... until now. Aaron Seigo, one of the KDE's lead developers, and his team are just about ready to roll-out the first tablet based entirely on Linux and free software: The Spark.

For those of you who are a little puzzled right now--"But, isn't Android based on Linux??" let me start by explaining that yes, Android is Linux and open-source software. But, its implementations on various smartphones and tablets always uses some proprietary software, firmware, and/or shims to combine the code into a working device. Spark is different.

As Seigo explains, "We decided to go with Mer, the community continuation of MeeGo, as our base OSS [open-source software]. With the amazing help of the Mer community, we have been able to bring up a non-Android, built-from-source kernel on the device and even boot into Plasma Active. There is still work left, and we still do have some binary drivers, but this progress is already one massive crowbar that's prying open the doors that have been shut on the world of ARM based devices."

Seigo continues, "Right now we're still stuck with a few binary drivers which is not a perfect situation. With time I'm confident we'll get the binary drivers out of the picture, one by one, even if it takes time, effort and some pain. We've already managed to get source for some drivers that were not previously available so the trajectory is right. If we wait for perfection, however, we'll never get anywhere because we need to release and push the status quo level of openness further inch my inch by making releases. It'll be incremental, but we're already further than others have gotten."

Getting back to the tablet, the hardware is powered by 1GHz AMLogic ARM processor, Mali-400 GPU, 512 MB RAM, 4GB internal storage plus SD card slot, a 7" capacitive multi-touch screen and 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. The list price will be 200 Euros or about $260. There's no word yet though on where it will be available or even if it will be available in the U.S.

If the tablet is, as Kjetil Kilhavn, a SAP consultant and KDE user, speculates, is built around the A9 Zenithink ZT-280 C71 tablet, it has a 7" (16:9) screen size with 800 x 480 resolution. It also would have a 1.3 MPixels front camera, built-in microphone and stereo speakers.

As for the software, on top of Mer, the Spark will use KDE Plasma Active for its user interface (UI). Plasma Active runs on the traditional Linux desktop stack, including the Linux kernel, Qt, and KDE's Plasma Framework. The UI uses Plasma Quick, a declarative markup language. This, in turn, is based on Qt Quick, an easy to use interface software development kit and framework. Above that, as Seigo emphasizes, "All the code above the kernel and most of the kernel itself is already open and available for download right now."

In addition, unlike some phone vendors and hardware manufacturers who are still fighting to keep you from booting your own operating system on their devices, in the Spark, according to Seigo, "openness and freedom goes a lot deeper in Spark than just using GPL and BSD licensed code. For instance, the boot loader isn't locked so you can boot your own OS if you wish. You can install your own apps, you can even provide your own app delivery system. You can use the Open Build Service to deliver software on top of the Mer core. That is not a property of the open licensing, but of our desire to deliver devices that you not only purchase but wish you own."

Seigo went on, "The content store is also going to be interesting. On release, the client will be free software and the APIs [application programming interface] openly documented so others can write front-ends. Most interestingly, however, is the server side. It has been designed in such a way that other people with other devices or concepts can use that same back end to make their own stores. It supports the idea of a single, large set of content which can then be curated into any number of different stores with different focuses and delivery targets.

But what if the project doesn't take off, will you be left with an orphaned system ala HP and WebOS? Nope.

Seigo states, "On release, we will be providing a guarantee that if the project dies or we all fall over, the back-end code for the store will be made immediately available for download under a free software license. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, of course. Once we are happy with the implementation and scalability of it, we will be making the back-end open as well. We have chosen to delay that release as we don't want others setting up their own hosted stores before we are confident in the internal design ourselves."

Want to know more? We'll have to wait. Seigo promises he'll answer more questions on February 2nd.

I think this is a very promising project. While the people who will immediately find it the most interesting will be open-source and free-software developers and gadget hounds, I can also see the Spark playing a role in the e-textbook of the future. As Seigo points out, the store back-end code itself could be very useful for schools "to set up a 'store' with learning materials and content with access granted to their students."

While no iPad killer, the Spark may be just what's needed to ignite a fire under innovative free and open-source software tablets. I'll be very interested in seeing where this project goes and what comes from others in response to it.

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The double-edged sword facing competitors of the iPad

Windows 8 vs. Android tablets: Which one has the edge? Try neither

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