Yesterday I watched Apple’s Steve Jobs unveil the iPad. Jobs clearly can create revolutionary products; he can also produce spin like no one else. Yesterday was no exception.
His main message about the iPad was “a magical device at a breakthrough price.” He repeated this many times throughout the pitch and twice at the end. This phrase demands an honest response: how will Linux-based devices compete with the iPad?
You might expect the Executive Director of the Linux Foundation to state with full confidence that Linux-based competitors will crush the iPad. Linux *can* compete in one area. $499 - $829 may be a breakthrough price for Apple and their margins, but it’s no comparison to the price competition Linux-based devices can offer. Vendors creating Tablets, slates, phones or other devices do not have to pay the per-unit pricing of other platforms. Apple products command a premium and Jobs will never cannibalize their pricing power. While I do believe that Linux can compete, and win, on price, I’m left to question: what about the magic?
Apple is unmatched at creating a cohesive experience. While many question the revolutionary impact of the iPad, Apple’s consistent user experience is far closer to magical than most things currently running Linux. It may be easy for us to bash Microsoft every other week, but Apple is a true competitor. They have the polish, the focus on usability and ease of use, the application and hardware integration all to make using their technology a seamless and elegant part of your day, instead of a constant struggle with technology. The Linux ecosystem needs to do better competing on “magic.”
This is not to say that there aren’t projects and products in the Linux that are innovative and focused on creating a magical user experience. A few that spring to mind:
- The clutter  UI project is advancing the state of the art in Linux-based desktops
- Android-based phones like the Droid or the Nexus One are getting close to the “magic” of the iPhone
- Moblin-based notebooks and tablet devices that are in development
- The Ubuntu projects recent focus on usability and user experience
- The Palm Pre and their Linux-based smart phones
- Nokia’s Maemo project and the N900
The issue is that while all of these are incredible efforts, Steve Jobs is hardly standing still. We have to do better.
With all this talk about “magic,” there is another important element to consider: freedom. Apple is the most locked down closed system imaginable, from the software ladened with DRM, all the way down to the custom silicon they use for their Apple A4 chip. Commercial success is important, but freedom is also important.
Where the Ipad will really impact Linux-based devices is in the embedded space. Amazon Kindle? It doesn’t look so hot if Apple gets a distribution deal with enough publishers. (Even if they don’t, they will likely freeze the market enough in the meantime to seriously dent Kindle’s numbers.) GPS providers who use Linux? They were already under seige from smart phones but this doesn’t help.
So my question to you: How can the Linux community get better at creating magic? While we’re strong on price, we still have a ways to go to compete. The Linux Foundation isn’t just going to complain about the need for more “Magic” on the Linux platform - we are going to do something about it. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for big news on just how we will accomplish this. In the mean time I would love to hear all of your ideas.