It’s already available for pre-order in Europe for €200, and developer Aaron Seigo who started the project says when it goes on sale in the US the Spark tablet will likely be even cheaper due to lower taxes in the States.
Seigo and KDE developer Zack Rusin stopped by Liliputing HQ recently to talk about the project. Unfortunately they didn’t have a prototype handy, but Seigo was in Philadelphia for a round of business meetings, so we took the opportunity to talk about free software, tablets, and how people use them.
One of the big ideas behind the project was to create an open tablet using free software. The Spark tablet will ship with Linux software, but it also has an unlocked bootloader which allows anyone to load just about any operating system they like on the hardware.
But another goal was to make the Spark tablet affordable and accessible — which is why the first tablet the group will offer doesn’t exactly have state-of-the-art specs. It features a 7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel display, a 1 GHz Amlogic ARM Cortex-A9 single core processor with Mali 400 graphics, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and 802.11b/g WiFi.
Right now there are also two items that aren’t based on free software: the WiFi and graphics drivers. That’s because there currently aren’t open source options available for the hardware used in the first Spark tablet, but an open source driver for Mali 400 graphics is in the works and will be added to the software stack when it’s available.
While it’s likely that the first customers for the Spark will be open source enthusiasts and developers, the project isn’t just aimed at that crowd. Out of the box, the tablet will include a web browser, eBook reader, office software, and a video player. There’s also an add-on store where users will be able to find additional software, thousands of free eBooks from Project Gutenberg, and other content.
It’s not just the open source licensing that sets the Spark apart from other tablets. The user interface is also designed around “activities” rather than apps and widgets. The idea is that you can create as many desktop spaces as you’d like for different activities and then you can customize that screen with the items you need so you can quickly access relevant apps, documents, photos, and other materials.
For instance you could create an activity for gaming, one for planning a party, another for reading, and so on. This video from a few weeks ago provides a quick overview of how activities work:
The tablet will also be able to run desktop Linux applications — although many will require some modifications to run properly on a device with a 800 x 480 pixel display and touch-based controls. But the tablet has 2 USB ports and an HDMI port which you can use to plug in a keyboard, mouse, and external display if you want to use it like a desktop PC.
Seigo says the 7 inch tablet is also just the beginning — the group wants to release other devices in other form factors using the KDE Plasma Active environment. That could include 10 inch tablets with higher resolution displays, set-top TV boxes and more.
Part of the reason Seigo wanted to get into the hardware business at all is because he didn’t want to wait for another company to pick up the software and run with it. But he’d love for the Spark to be just one of many tablets running Plasma Active software.
If the folks behind the Spark tablet can sell thousands of devices directly to consumers through the Make Play Live website, they can demonstrate that there’s a demand for this type of solution, and if that happens it’s possible that the Spark could become just one of several tablets using Plasma Active software.
Seigo says demand has already proven pretty strong during the pre-order period. We’re not talking Apple iPad strong here, but as an open source, community-driven project, the group doesn’t exactly have to sell millions of tablets to consider the Spark a success.
The first Spark tablet is based on the Zenithink C71 tablet from China. That’s prompted some people to wonder why the Spark is selling for €200 when you can just buy your own C71 with Linux for $126 and install KDE Plasma Active yourself.
Seigo says the extra money in the Spark price pays for a few things. Some of it goes to shipping and distribution fees. Some goes to the group’s retail partners. But some of the money will also go back into the KDE Plasma Active and Mer Linux communities to spur further software development and possibly to pave the way for additional hardware devices.