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MeeGo Brings The Magic

When the Linux Foundation announced the MeeGo project earlier this year, they said it would "bring the magic to Linux." Now that it is finally here, does it deliver on its promise? It sure does.

Netbooks. Does anyone care any more, or is it all about tablets, iPads, iPeds and whatever else is coming out soon?

It may well be, but even with all these fancy gadgets, netbooks are still around. Just like notebooks are still around and just like desktop computers are still around. So don’t write off that little machine just yet.

Choices

So you want to buy a netbook for some logically sound reason no doubt, but what choices are there? Well currently there’s ahh, Windows and ahh, Windows. We are all too well aware of what Microsoft did to the netbook market, but in all fairness perhaps the main problem was that Linux just wasn’t ready. It certainly seemed to fit well; cheap, low cost, light. Linux fits right in. The versions of Linux which came with first generation netbooks weren’t bad per se, but they weren’t fantastic either. They were more of a custom hack on a full blown desktop operating system, and then castrated. Ouch.

Sure, we geeks just celebrated the fact that we could buy a computer without paying Microsoft tax, but it didn’t last long. It turns out that battling a monopolist is hard work! Now, one generally purchases a netbook with Windows and then installs their own favourite flavour of Linux instead, such as Ubuntu Netbook Edition. It’s great that there are now so many options for Linux on the netbook (such as Jolicloud and xPud), but it’s a shame that these weren’t available earlier on. Even so, despite all these great options consumers still cannot purchase a netbook with Ubuntu pre-installed from department stores (although Dell and other providers do sell limited models in a small number of countries, which is a good start).

So what does it take? Many felt that Linux needed a solid, stable, combined front for netbooks. Ladies and Gentlemen, that has finally arrived with MeeGo. Backed by the Linux Foundation, MeeGo is a custom Linux platform which arose from the joining of Intel’s Moblin with Nokia’s Maemo. It’s targeted at many platforms including of course netbooks, but also in-car navigation systems, phones, televisions and yes even, tablets.

MeeGo Netbook Experience
MeeGo Netbook Experience

Did that sound too much like press release spiel? Apologies for that, but I’m excited. MeeGo really is a game changer, with one caveat – it needs to get out there onto devices. I’m reasonably confident that had MeeGo existed at the time of the first (or maybe even second generation) netbooks, we would have experienced an entirely different history. Still, not all is lost! If big iron Intel can convince makers of their Atom based devices to ship MeeGo instead of (or along side) Windows based netbooks, it will be a game changer (finally). If they can’t, then MeeGo will more than likely end up another great piece of technology that relatively few people use. Let’s hope it’s the former!

The market has changed. User’s expectations have changed. Thanks largely to the iPhone phenomenon, users are happy to own and use non-Windows devices and right now could be the turning point for Linux acceptance, especially if it’s cute and sexy. Can Linux be sexy?

We’ve been here before, what’s the fuss about?

I know, I know. You’ve heard all this before, but this isn’t about a “year of Linux” on the desktop. It’s just as much about you and the flavour of Linux that you choose to run on your netbook, as it is about what netbooks consumers might be able to purchase down the road. If you haven’t given Moblin or MeeGo a try, then it’s time you considered it!

On the 25th May 2010, the first version of the MeeGo Core Platform was released, along with what they call the “Netbook User Experience” – that is to say, the user interface designed for netbooks. This is how MeeGo will work on various devices, via a common core and various interfaces. For example, the handset interface (obviously for phones and the like) is due for release sometime later in June. While this first release is essentially designed as a solid base system for developers and distributors to build upon, it is also perfectly suitable for end users to run on netbooks.

Not only is MeeGo available for anyone to download and use, Intel and its partners plan to start shipping consumer products later this year (and there are a lot of partners). As MeeGo is an open platform, we could well see an Ubuntu version of MeeGo at some point (Moblin packages are already in the repository and Fedora introduced a complete Moblin desktop last year) and we have already seen vendors such as Novell pledge their support. Several hardware manufacturers have already embraced MeeGo and will ship devices next year. Asus has already set up its own Application Store, based on Intel’s AppUp service. The app store is a very important key to success in this space. Although MeeGo comes with a great set of applications, it’s the fun, addictive games and applications which get users hooked on a particular platform.

The Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin introduced key advantages of MeeGo earlier this year when the project was announced, saying:

“* MeeGo was built for powerful next generation devices from the ground up; instead of a cell phone system trying to work in netbooks or a desktop system trying to work on phones, MeeGo has powerful computing in its DNA and will take advantage of new hardware form factors the industry hasn’t even dreamed up.

* It’s truly open, meaning it’s aligned with upstream components (like the Linux kernel, X.org, D-BUS, tracker, GStreamer, Pulseaudio and more) and takes full advantage of the open model. This reduces fragmentation and complexity for ecosystem partners and will make Linux as a whole stronger.

* Qt and application portability. Developers can target multiple platforms (Windows, Mac, Symbian, etc) and devices with a consistent application API and have them run across a broad range of devices. Consumers will want to access the same apps on various devices. Qt and MeeGo make that possible. Because it already reaches so many platforms, Qt is a safe bet for developers. Because it is already well used, it will make it easy to bring many apps from Windows and the Mac over to Linux.

* Cross-device support. Closed platforms (like Apple’s iPad) drive up costs for consumers and limit hardware choice. MeeGo is multi-architecture and can power a broad range of devices from your TV to your car to your pocketable computer to your phone. Consumers can keep their apps and use different devices from different producers.”

What MeeGo provides is something never before seen for netbooks – a custom, purpose built, open, internet focused appliance all in one neat little package. If what I have been using for the last week is just a taste of what’s to come, I like it.

The appliance

Right from the get-go, MeeGo looks neat and very well integrated. Indeed it is! What it does is to turn a netbook into more of an appliance – a single purpose tool in a small, neat little package.

Every hardware component on the Asus 1000HE worked perfectly, including the web camera, built-in microphone, bluetooth, wireless, touchpad (with two finger scroll), keyboard hotkeys and even suspend and resume! From the boot screen to the desktop it’s certainly pretty. It’s the best integrated Linux “desktop” I have ever seen. The simple icons are really striking and give the whole operating system a solid, unified look and feel.

MeeGo for netbooks is definitely not the Qt based Maemo blend some might have been expecting, but then there’s no telling if this current iteration is the end of the road either. At present, it is in fact more of an updated version of Moblin and is still heavily GTK+ based. The tablets on display at Computex are using MeeGo with the “Tablet Experience” user interface on top, which is built on Qt (and it looks amazing).

There’s no telling whether the Qt interface will also make its way to the netbook version, but it’s entirely possible. The Qt libraries are already included and are used for a number of small things such as Garage, one of the “marketplace” type application installers. Aside from that, the rest of the system is built on GTK+ and various GNOME desktop technologies. There’s no telling where this might go in the future however, and whether there might even be multiple netbook versions. Indeed, the press release at the time of MeeGo’s announcement appears to show a future consisting of various user interfaces, including one for netbooks and one for handhelds. There is a spot for “others” too, but either way all of this is built on a Linux kernel core and middleware with various libraries including Qt and GTK+ Clutter. Currently we only have the netbook GTK+ and Qt interface for handhelds and tablets.

The netbook interface has been covered before, but essentially it revolves around a “Myzone” area which collects and displays your favourite applications, recently accessed items, online feeds from services like Twitter and Facebook, as well as calendar events, unread emails and the like. Then, across the top is a customizable launch bar which has shortcuts to things you want quick access to like the Internet, chats, applications, devices, gadgets and networks.

One of the greatest components of MeeGo is the idea of Zones, which are like virtual desktops on the traditional Linux system. The difference is, that one Zone generally contains one application and opening a new application creates a new Zone to house it in. This works really well because of the small screen real estate. The only thing that I did not like about the Zones was the arrangement of each in a long column on the Zones page when there are lots of programs. This means you can’t really see what was on the screen because it is so squashed (although you know what it is from the icon at the bottom).

Open an application from Myzone or the applications menu and watch the desktop zoom out of the way and bring up your application. Close the program and the interface zooms back to wherever you were. MeeGo gets out of your way, and I love it. Perhaps it’s just playing a trick on my mind, but this feels great. Using MeeGo makes me happy. I feel like the system is not in my way, but rather just letting me go where I want and do what I want to, fast. Other netbook operating systems are cluttered – a notification bar with dozens of programs running which are a pain to switch. Not so with MeeGo.

You can really tell that it’s been designed from scratch to work a specific way, and to work well with small resolution screens. It’s brilliant.

Seamless integration and freedom come as standard

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