The netbook phenomenon was going to hail in the reign of Linux on the desktop. It hasn't, yet. Now however the Moblin project is changing the game, so much so that we just might see Linux take back that market share which it lost in the very beginning.
The netbook market initially held a lot of promise for Linux on the “desktop”. They were brand new, lightweight, interesting, cheap and best of all; they came with Linux.
It seemed like this might be the starting point of something that free software could grab a hold of and dominate because it was totally new. Finally, the age of the Linux desktop had arrived. Or so some thought.
The first generation Asus EeePC netbook came with Linux and in Australia was available only through the department store Myer. It sold out right across the country in just two days. In the United States, Asus sold over ten thousand units in the first two weeks of release. Things were certainly looking good!
Microsoft first ignored this new market, but later realizing its potential (and threat) moved in for the kill. Vista couldn’t cut it on such low end machines and XP was on the way out, so Microsoft created a new crippled version of the aging product and extended its life until Windows 7 would arrive.
Then, through marketing and wheeling and dealing, they pushed Linux out of the market. The plan was to kill it before it got too strong and it wasn’t long before the majority of new netbooks were shipped with Windows.
In Australia, the next version of the EeePC was once again available through Myer but this time with a major difference – it was sold only with Windows. The Linux version remained available, but only through local computer stores and not the department stores where the first version had been so popular. Microsoft had one this battle, but has it won the war?
The Linux realm is often criticized for having too much choice, but in this specific scenario there wasn’t a whole lot going around. Different manufacturers were mashing together their own custom distributions, but the main stream distros didn’t have much to offer. Linux users being the technical lovers that they are, weren’t happy with what was available and started hacking their own systems together.
Netbooks are low powered, they have small screens and slow drives. As Linux users started to play with their machines they started tweaking all the little unique aspects of the netbooks and creating custom remixes of their favorite distros. Today there is a lot more choice.
Perhaps the most popular distribution on the netbook has been Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix Edition, a system built on the standard packages but with a unique interface on top of GNOME. The next official version is coming next month.
While various distros were busy creating their own versions for users to install on their netbooks, something else big was stirring. The first commercial netbook came with an older Celeron processor but Intel was busy developing the Atom processor, a low powered CPU specifically designed for low power machines. All new netbooks would soon be built with these new components which provided better performance at much lower power consumption.
The times they are a-changin’
Once most netbooks were shipping with Atom processors, Intel started a new project called Moblin which would be an operating system optimized for the processor. It would focus on low power consumption and speedy boot times, all built on the Linux kernel and a custom user interface.
As the website says:
“The Moblin Architecture is designed to support multiple platforms and usage models ranging from Netbooks to Mobile Internet Devices (MID), to various embedded usage models, such as the In Vehicle Infotainment systems. The central piece of the architecture is the common layer we call “Moblin Core“, a hardware and usage model independent layer that provides one uniform way to develop such devices. Underneath the Moblin Core sits the Linux kernel and device drivers specific to the hardware platform, and above the Moblin Core are the specific user interface and user interaction model for the target device.”
Through Moblin vendors are encouraged to continue shipping the Atom processor in their products, as it provides them with the building blocks of a free operating system. Moblin is targeted squarely at ensuring that Intel systems remain the best choice for netbooks and other low end systems.
What free software needed was a high polished operating system for netbooks which could challenge Microsoft’s stranglehold on the market and give manufacturers something solid that they could bank on. Moblin provides this with its unique interface and highly optimized environment.
Now in the hands of the Linux Foundation, the project recently announced the availability of the final version 2.0 release. The system is available for anyone to download and run on their netbook, however only a few models are officially supported. The idea is that vendors will work with the Moblin development team to create customized releases for their products, which will in turn increase the number of supported devices.
The Moblin experience
The good news for end users is that this system is available now and it works very, very well indeed. The interface is designed to be simple to use and focuses around life on the web.
Across the top of the screen is an auto-hiding menu providing access to several categories such as applications installed on the machine, the web browser including links to favorite sites, multimedia, online connections with people close to you, and your zones. Also available is the power management system, volume control and network manager.
The main panel is called “MyZone” and shows the user any appointments of the day, favorite websites in the middle and connections with friends online. It also has shortcuts to various programs, such as the media player and calendar. Zones are similar to the concept of multiple desktops on a standard Linux environment, however they are much more refined on Moblin and work very well.
The interface is clean, it is all well designed and blends in nicely. You can tell that it’s all one piece, designed to work together and there is no feeling that it’s been bolted on top of something else. And so it shouldn’t – the interface was one of the main features of Moblin and a major goal early on in the project.
The web browser works quite well and includes most of the expected features including tabbed browsing and flash, which works out of the box.
The default install includes a great number of every day apps including the web browser, email client and chat program, a media player, calendar, calculator, file browser, screen-shot tool, text editor, photo booth, PDF viewer and sound recorder. Best of all, even though its highly refined look and feel makes it seem like a locked down appliance, you actually get full root access and a standard Linux terminal. Hurray!
Being built on Fedora, the system also provides access to many familiar tools including the Yum package manager. There is a multitude of applications available and it will be even easier to install them with the upcoming release of Moblin Garage.
The existing application section allows users to easily find what they need, and includes a super fast search system – something that the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface is sorely missing.
Configuring your network connection is a snap, with a very simple interface. Users can turn things like wireless off and on with the flick of a switch, even disabling all network entirely. The desktop includes a simple notification system which pops up from time to time with helpful messages, such as when networks are connected.
Even though the system is designed for low end computers, the interface does have some eye candy. The options at the top bounce out from the screen when you hover over them and all of the windows slide in and out of view. Some of it can be a little jumpy at times, but mostly it works quite smoothly.
Testing an EeePC
On an Asus EeePC 1000HE netbook with a conventional spinning disk, Moblin v2.0 takes just over twenty seconds to boot from the GRUB prompt to a fully loaded desktop. That’s twice as fast as Ubuntu Karmic Netbook Remix, although it’s not quite the five seconds available from a flash drive.
As for hardware support, everything worked as expected. Suspend and resume worked without a hitch, wireless was well supported and connects to configured networks automatically, even after a resume! The track pad was very responsive and supported dual finger scrolling out of the box. Sound worked correctly, as did the built in web cam and microphone.
Most of the function buttons also worked correctly including brightness, suspend, volume control, wireless switch, and external screen.
All in all, although not an officially supported model, the 1000HE worked very well on Moblin, in fact better than any other operating system so far. It works so well that it’s easy to just pull out the netbook and resume from suspend, do something quickly and suspend again a short time later. It makes using the netbook much more attractive.
Regaining lost ground
Moblin turns a netbook into a usable, reliable appliance and provides everything a user might need for their online life, and more.
Linux is about choice and finally it is coming to the netbook. Due to its powerful, flexible nature, projects such as Moblin are not only a possibility, they are a reality.
If you’re not happy with your netbook’s original operating system, can’t seem to find an interface that suits your style, or want a netbook optimized distro that Just Works (TM), then give Moblin a try. It only supports a limited number of netbooks at the moment, but this will definitely change over time as more and more vendors create support for their own products.
Recently Dell and Canonical announced the availability of a developer release of Ubuntu Moblin Netbook Remix Edition for the Mini 10v. Mandriva and Novell have both also created their own Moblin based products for sale to manufacturers. Acer will also be replacing their original Linpus Linux operating system with it.
Commercial products based on Moblin are coming in thick and fast. The product is great, the support is there. It’s time. The question now will be whether it is enough to persuade manufacturers to dump Windows, even with various “incentives” and heavy discounts from Microsoft. Time will tell, but it seems that once this picks up steam even Microsoft won’t be able to stop it.
Hopefully with all these changes afoot, it won’t be too long before we start to see Linux back in its rightful place as the number one operating system for netbooks and low powered machines.