I write this article exactly 24 hours after receiving my Galaxy Tab 10.1. It's something I've been wanting for a long time. I had to wait for the dispute between Apple and Samsung to settle (Samsung actually lost on millions of dollars worth of sales thanks to software patents, but that's another story). After all that, I came to the realisation that we are in front of a forking path. On one side there is the death of GNU/Linux as we know it. On the other side, there is a new exciting world where free software is still relevant. I am not writing this just to be "sensational": here is why.
We have all seen the gadgetification of software: it started with Nokia phones that allowed you to install extra applications and games. It exploded with Apple, and the glorification of the "app market" (which is, excuse me, a generic term). It "inspired" the Android market, and -- let's not forget -- the Mac OS X app market. It also inspired Ubuntu's own "app market".
The world of software has changed. In the (recent) past, software was something to install and use. Today, with the "app markets", software is becoming a gadget to play with.
All of these "app markets" have something in common (that includes Ubuntu's): applications can cost money (users will know it), can have a $0 price, or can be free as in freedom -- and the user has absolutely no way of telling the difference between the last two options. Free is free is free. It's a cool gadget: I will use it.
Honest hat on: With my Galaxy tab, I am a "app market" user. I look for an app -- often, I admit, a game. I click on it, I install it, I play with it. I purchased Fruit Ninja, one of the most enjoyable games since I was a kid. Yes, I am sucked in. Badly. And I am the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine.
Android, based on Linux, might well be what actually made GNU/Linux irrelevant. Ouch.
Changing the route
Here is what I believe should happen in order to change things:
Develop an alternative, fantastic replacement for the Market. Something like F-droid is a huge step in the right direction -- I am not sure if there are others yet. My personal Kudos to the guys developing it. But, for now it's only a "good start": the competition is tough (it's the proprietary market itself). The Android Market has a lot of nice features (user ratings and comments being just two of them). There is also a lot to do in terms of apps available in F-droid.
Offer a way to turn a proprietary-filled tablet (like the Galaxy Tab, but really, any one) into something that only uses free software. A simple, one-button process. It is possible: the market could be f-droid, the e-book reader could be Cool Reader (available from f-droid!), and so on. It would be great if there were an app to do this: something that would place all of the proprietary applications in a sub-folder, and would place all the free ones (and I mean, free as in freedom) in the home page and as default handlers. Using a free software launcher like ADW.Launcher would make this possible.
Eventually, offer a full Android system entirely based on free software (that is, one where those free apps are not installed at all). This might be very much a up-hill battle, since even installing your own ROM is such a hard task...)
Point 1 is a matter of making alternatives to the Android Market as relevant as possible, by building something that looks even better than the what comes with Android. Point 2 might seem useless, but it isn't: tablets seem to imply a level of laziness in users. A one-shop stop that places all of the proprietary apps away, and only use free software, would be the way to go. Point 3 is possible, but a situation where a ROM is installed by default, or where it takes little effort to swap ROM with the free software one is something I don't expect in the short term -- unfortunately.
So, maybe nit everything is lost?
Maybe the situation is not desperate just yet. However, it's pretty bad: proprietary software for tablets us very polished. Getting people to use free software will be harder if proprietary software becomes more established and ingrained in the way people interact with computers.