Gesture touchpad now available for Linux, ChromeOS, but it's not open source

Synaptics Gesture Suite for Linux solves the difficult problem of a gesture-based interface.

One of the market leaders in touchpads, Synaptics, last week ported its multi-touch, gesture-based touchpads to Linux. It promises that the touchpad software is compatible with these six distros: Fedora, Millos Linpus, Red Flag, SLED 11 (SuSE), Ubuntu, and Xandros. The company hinted that Google (which is already a Synaptics customer), will be using this touchpad for its upcoming ChromeOS devices.

Synaptics multi-touch for Linux
Synaptics Gesture Suite for Linux is specific for the company's Touchpad and Clickpad products, not, as of yet, its touchscreen. Even so, some sort of gesture-based interface is quickly becoming a must-have feature for mobile devices. If a device will sport a touchpad in addition to, or instead of, a touchscreen, that touchpad should know the difference between a tap intended to open a document, and a two-finger slide intended to zoom.

It is encouraging that the Linux device market has matured to the point where companies like Synaptics are now trying to woo it. And the Linux version of its gesture-based software is being offered for free to OEMs who buy its touchpad or clickpad.

While there are a handful of open source projects that bring multi-touch to Linux-based devices, it's not an easy task. Last month, Canonical documented all the many ways that it is trying to make sure Ubuntu is compatible with multi-touch -- in particular touchscreens. That project's contributors listed a suggested stack:

"The intended stack would be (upside down):

  • kernel driver (mine or others)
  • /dev/input/eventX
  • X.org evdev driver (the one patched by Benjamin, for instance)
  • X.org MPX/XInput2 API
  • multitouchd daemon
  • Qt or GTK+ or other

The current status of the above stack is "multi-pointer only", that is multi-touch without any gesture recognition. There have been debates as to where to put gesture recognition in the stack. Very few people have worked on multitouch gestures."

Synaptics would solve the problem by letting the OEMs add multi-touch from the getgo.

However, there are still several eyebrow-raising aspects to this news. The product, the Synaptics Gesture Suite for Linux, will not itself be open source, says Ted Theocheung, General Manager, PC & Digital Home Ecosystem, at Synaptics. Ergo, Synaptics has announced no intention (at this time) to contribute to the Linux Kernel. The company is only making the software available to device OEMs, so if you have a PC with a Synaptics touchpad that you want to convert to Linux, your ability to get drivers to operate the touchpad remains iffy (at least as of now). Synaptics says that it is leaving the decision to distribute Linux drivers up to the device OEMs, reports OS News.

Here's what Theocheung told me:

1. Is the Synaptics Gesture Suite for Linux itself open source?

"SGS includes Synaptics IP in gesture technology and is not open source.  Synaptics developed Synaptics Gesture Suite Linux (SGS-L) for OEMs that want to integrate notebooks with Synaptics’ TouchPad family of products, and like the Windows PC world, provides the driver with the TouchPad / ClickPad to enable the broad features of the Synaptics hardware."

2. The press release specifically calls out Google Chrome OS. And Synaptics names Google as a customer in its annual report (presumably for the Nexus One phone – since its known that Synaptics supplies the touch interface for T-Mobile’s Android phone, the G1).  Is it factual to say that Google plans to enable its upcoming Chrome OS devices with touch support from Synaptics?

"Synaptics is the leader in PC notebook TouchPads with over 70% penetration in notebooks, and over 90% share specifically in netbooks across all the major PC OEMs.  The SGS-L release extends the Synaptics Gesture Suite to OEMs that offer Linux-based solutions.

"It is public knowledge that Google Chrome OS and Chromium (open source) are based on Ubuntu.  SGS-L supports Ubuntu and has been tested for both TouchPad and ClickPad functionality in our labs on Chromium. (ClickPad support and full SGS gesture functionality is not in opensource).  Google has not fully disclosed its plans for Chrome OS, but Chrome is a full operating system that includes hardware support for specified devices."

3. What do you think about the Linux tablet market generally?  Can the Linux world compete with products like the Apple’s iPad?

"With slates and tablets’ flexibility to create content and connect to the Web, Synaptics views these new devices as the killer app in the “fourth screen” category. We see an opportunity for various operating systems being able to compete in this emerging market. Synaptics is the leader in capacitive touch technology for both opaque TouchPads and clear touchscreens (ClearPad), and has been watching this category closely — we see touch user interfaces playing a larger part in “fourth screen” devices."

So, my final thought is that is that perhaps users will want a tablet, and a Linux one at that, as a "fourth screen" on top of a television/video console, full-fledged PC and mobile phone. My concern is that manufacturers coming from the PC/proprietary world will want to win Linux users, but won't roll up their sleeves and contribute back to the open source community.

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