Hardware Mozilla Open Source

Firefox Tablet

TechCrunch popped the idea of creating a Web tablet based on Linux and Firefox. The idea is interesting and something I wanted to pick apart (and reassemble) a bit. It’s a novel idea and I’m very interested in watching it. Success or failure, I think important things will be learned in the industry of open source hardware. Here’s how it’s described:

The machine is as thin as possible, runs low end hardware and has a single button for powering it on and off, headphone jacks, a built in camera for video, low end speakers, and a microphone. It will have Wifi, maybe one USB port, a built in battery, half a Gigabyte of RAM, a 4-Gigabyte solid state hard drive. Data input is primarily through an iPhone-like touch screen keyboard. It runs on linux and Firefox. It would be great to have it be built entirely on open source hardware, but including Skype for VOIP and video calls may be a nice touch, too.

Overall it’s pretty sound though a few things jump out at me.

  • Battery LifeThe screen for something like this looks like it will be a decent size (9-12″), meaning it will need a decent battery. Getting a slim and light enough battery with enough battery life to allow for WiFi browsing (since that’s what the device is dedicated to) could be difficult. Your going to need more than an iPhone battery. I suspect under 4hrs will never go. 6-8 for any real adoption.
  • Resolution – If it doesn’t hit 1024×768 it’s going to have a tough time being popular. That’s pretty much the standard most sites are made for.
  • RAM – 512MB should be enough for a product that’s just a web browser / VoIP terminal, but if it left the ability to add up to 1GB (even if no easy access door) it may do better in terms of getting adoption.
  • PC Card – The major criticism of the MacBook Air was the lack of a PC Card slot for a wireless card. You know that will be a case here. This could be tricky.
  • Durability – Gadgets tend to last 2-4 years. We’ll go with 2 for the sake of this discussion. The front is a giant screen. It’s shaped like a book. Many people will want to carry it ina backpack or other bag containing other items. The iPhone is somewhat unique for using glass rather than plastic. The iPhone is tough as nails. If this screen gets scratched easily, it’s going to become a crappy experience overnight. If glass isn’t an affordable option, perhaps a low cost alternative is to make a cheap and easily replaceable plastic cover. So if it gets scratched up beyond the users threshold they can order another cover and just replace it.
  • Software – I agree with the slim idea, but this runs into the same issues as Apple had with the iPhone. Web Apps don’t always cut it. The ability to hit the OS should be there (at your own risk) with an easy way to restore your device to factory condition (perhaps by connecting to the desktop and running some application). I know I’d like an SSH client (openSSH will be fine). Pidgin perhaps? Skype would be cool too. Easily hackable would be a major plus. Especially considering the nature of the early adopters.
  • Stand – A stand with a built in USB hub and charger would be a very good accessory (keep cost of actual tablet low). It could be designed like a monitor so when you put the tablet in place, you can have a keyboard in front of it… and use it as a terminal with mouse/keyboard. Or just use the touch screen by tilting it back. All while it charges.

The ability to adopt some or all of these ideas needs to take into account price. But these are what I think will likely gauge it’s success or failure, assuming it reaches the market. The benchmark is the iPhone, love it or hate it. Being as user friendly, flexible, and durable is important. Taking advantage of the form factor, and a reasonable price is what will set it apart.

What will we call it? The best name I can think of is the Firefox Tablet, but that will take a round of discussions with Mozilla.

With the modifications to Firefox, that’s not likely. Get ready for IceWeasel Tablet.

Now that I gave my $0.02, I’d be curious to know what others think of the idea.

10 replies on “Firefox Tablet”

We can still call it firefox tablet, if Mozilla bless the changes.

I can see an ideal world where Mozilla gets behind this idea and have the UI gurus (azza et al) develop something fantastic for it.

@George Deka: Very true. Though given the reasoning for previous trademark claims, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Besides, I’d say it was limiting to use the Firefox brand. CrunchTablet, WebTablet, HyperTablet, etc could all be better choices. Personally I’d prefer something not so web intensive, instead focusing on the hardware’s unique design.

You really think you need 512Mb to run just a browser? Fennec seems to do ok in ~32mb. Granted it’s got less chrome than Firefox, but still.

Also I think you’re missing the point by trying to make it more of a general-purpose device. He wants it for browsing the web, which will get you pretty far these days. If you start adding scope creep, you’ll fail. (Not that I think he has a great chance at success here anyway, given that he has no product design experience, and he’s asking for ideas from blog commenters…)

To be as slim as possible and having a reasonable battery life can be fulfilled only with OLED display, so be patient till it’s mass produced.

I want this! Preferrably as a web-only browsing device with no personal computer aspirations.

Hacking must be made possible, though. But while developers and advanced users should be able to acces the OS directly, I think the contraption could be made more usable for the average consumer – not a Linux user – if the most important OS features and settings were to be fronted by the browser interface. Sort of a integrated XUL operating system, exposing the features most relevant for the tablets limited scope of use, although expandable by extensions. I believe that the “integrated” look and feel is a selling point for this kind of gadget, in contrast to the open nature of a full blown OS. Having to maintain both a Firefox theme and a Gnome theme in order to look slick is not an option for the “hip” mainstream audience that this product could very well attract: I would not expect morning commuters to access the news on an iPhone once this product becomes available, but it all hangs on the simplicity of the interface.

Sure there is a need for instant messengers and stuff. I don’t use an IM myself, but I suspect that the dominant messengers on Lunux are easily portable to XUL, if not already available as Firefox extensions. Since only a single operating system is catered for with this tablet, all XUL-to-OS integration should be possible for the right technical fellow without the usual cross-platform considerations, so most “relevant” software could – in theory – be integrated directly into the browser chrome very fast.

I would definitely add a stylus to the list of hardware.

@Ted Mielczarek: I wouldn’t consider it scope creep considering no real extra development is needed. I’d consider it akin to support for extensions in Firefox. Making it hackable increases the net worth of the device without having to do the work yourself. Firefox gained a lot from Firebug, AdBlock and other popular extensions out there. That push is something that shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s better to leave it open, rather than to force people to hack the device, and risk bricking it (iPhone hacking). “If you can’t beat em’… join em'”.

@Wired Earp: Adding a stylus really takes away from the simplicity. The 90’s are over.

@Robert: Without a stylus, it would at least require some sort of intelligent page-zoom system. I wouldn’t trust my fingers to organize Firefox bookmarks on a 1024px screen. Or drag pages around in a content management system. Simplicity should extend to these operations as well. Mouseover feedback is also corrupted in all touch-screen systems I’ve used; it’s really not the same without it. Try right-clicking with your finger…

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