February 23, 2010 1 Comment
In case you haven’t heard, Intel and Nokia are merging their respective Mobile Linux initiatives into a project called MeeGo (an unfortunate name, IMHO, but I guess that’s fairly common in the FLOSS world these days) that will be hosted by The Linux Foundation. From CNET:
Intel and Nokia are combining their respective Linux operating environments to power future smartphones and tablets, another step in a technology tie-up launched last year.
The technology merger will fuse Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo software to form a new operating environment dubbed MeeGo, which is expected to power a range of devices, including pocketable mobile computers, Netbooks, tablets, connected TVs, and in-vehicle infotainment systems.
Intel’s Moblin operating system has been offered on Netbooks from Dell, Acer, and Asus and made an appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show on a future smartphone from LG Electronics. Nokia’s Maemo OS has powered its N900, a high-end smartphone that Nokia refers to as a “mobile computer”–a likely precursor for future MeeGo-based devices from the Finnish telecommunications giant.
The Intel-Nokia collaboration began in earnest in June when the two companies announced the beginning of a “long-term relationship,” focusing on developing new chip architectures, software, and a new class of Intel-based mobile computing devices. This move is part of a major shift for Intel–a giant in PC chips but not a player in cell phones.
The goal for MeeGo is to put more flesh on the bones of last year’s announcement. In short, to combine two disparate, unwieldy operating environments under one roof, said Renee J. James, a senior vice president at Intel. “Across a range of devices we’re looking to build a single Linux platform with a single developer environment and a merged API,” James said in an interview with CNET. An API, or application programming interface, is a way for a program to interact with other software.
Both companies stressed that applications that run on Moblin and Maemo will run on top of MeeGo.
Importantly, MeeGo will support equally ubiquitous ARM-architecture chips, in addition to Intel processors. “It’s going to be cross-platform. That means it supports both Intel and ARM,” James said. ARM processors are offered by Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Samsung, and others, while Intel’s Atom processor powers Moblin-based devices today.
The official Linux Foundation page adds:
MeeGo is fully open software operating system for the next generation of computing devices. Formed by Intel and Nokia and hosted at The Linux Foundation, the MeeGo platform is set to revolutionize computing and be adopted widely by device manufacturers, network operators, software vendors and developers across multiple device types. We welcome participation in the workgroup, and encourage all ecosystem participants to join the Linux Foundation and participate more closely with the MeeGo project.
As usual, RedMonk has a very good Q & A post up. Here are a few salient bits:
Q: So this project is basically a consolidation of two projects that were competing, essentially, in the same space?
A: There was some minimal distance between the projects, actually: maemo, for example, was never aimed at the full fledged netbook market. When Nokia entered that market, remember, they went Windows 7, not maemo.
So there’s more differentiation between their target audiences than is commonly supposed. But to the point, yes: this can be considered market consolidation.
Q: Isn’t that a good thing?
A: It certainly can be. It is not clear, for example, that either project had sufficient oxygen to sustain itself indefinitely. So by joining forces, they have a better opportunity on paper.
Q: Why do you say on paper?
A: Because these are technologies that – apart from their shared kernel heritage – don’t really have all that much in common. The packaging systems are different, the UI frameworks are different, the applications are different, and so on. Meaning that not only is the merger likely to be complicated, both communities are likely to be significantly impacted.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: Consider the packaging format. Moblin, being Fedora based, uses .rpm, while maemo, being derived from Debian uses .deb. According to the FAQ, MeeGo is going to support only .rpm. In practical terms, then, all of the packages available for maemo will have to be repackaged.
Q: So they should have supported both?
A: No, that just makes things more complicated. That’s the approach they’re taking with the UI frameworks, and it’s probably not wise.
Q: How so? What’s the story with the UI frameworks?
A: Without rehashing a lot of unimportant history, let’s just say that there are two popular open source UI frameworks: GTK and Qt. Qt had generally been better thought of, technically, but until 2009 was more restrictively licensed. GTK, being more permissively licensed, was more widespread.
Both Moblin and maemo were, at their inception, GTK based, though Moblin also used Clutter, which we’ll come back to. Nokia, however, acquired in 2008 Trolltech, the vendor behind Qt. They asserted at the time that maemo would continue to be GTK, but a number of people – myself included – were skeptical. And sure enough, maemo subsequently transitioned to that UI toolkit.
Back to Clutter. A very cool OpenGL toolkit built in part by Intel acquisition OpenedHand, Clutter allows for hardware accelerated UIs via OpenGL and integrates well with GTK.
Complicated, no? The net is that there is considerable overlap between the UI technologies, but rather than annoint – or at least pick out of a hat – a winner, MeeGo is following in the footsteps of Linux desktops that preceded it, and intends to support all of the UI options.
Now, while it’s clear that Moblin and Maemo had an uphill battle ahead and long term viability was never guaranteed for either, I don’t know that it’s clear that MeeGo will fare much better. From Nokia’s statements it’s pretty clear they will be sticking with Symbian on all of their smartphones and will be putting MeeGo only on what they call “pocketable devices”. It seems unlikely then that others will attempt to use Meego on smartphones, which steers it clear of competition from Android, the iPhone and other more traditional phone OS’s. In the “pocketable devices” category though they already have competition from some established Linux distributions such as Ubuntu NetBook Remix, and ChromeOS will be ready soon. Add the soon to be released iPad to the mix and the space begins to look cluttered (zing) pretty quickly.
On the technical side, their is some compelling technology in both Maemo and Moblin. I’ve owned multiple Nokia Maemo devices and have really enjoyed them. Moblin boot times are looking extremely impressive. That being said, the two projects have some large technological differences (the RedMonk Q&A covers some of them, but think QT vs. GTK, RPM vs. deb… etc.) that will almost ensure that bits of both communities, which are fairly diminutive to begin with, will be alienated as part of the merge process. Will what remains be enough to fend off the well funded competition from Google, Apple and the others who may enter this up and coming product space? Only time will tell.