Quick FAQ: Making Sense Out Of Moblin

Are you wondering what Moblin is and why you're hearing so much about it lately? Step right up, and we'll try to answer your questions.
Are you wondering what Moblin is and why you're hearing so much about it lately? Step right up, and we'll try to answer your questions.Moblin is a Linux distro based on a project that Intel launched back in 2007. Intel subsequently turned Moblin over to the Linux Foundation; a number of other Linux distributors, including Canonical (Ubuntu) and Novell (SUSE) now integrate various pieces of Moblin with their own distros.

This week, Dell's release of its first Moblin-powered netbook is grabbing quite a few headlines. Here's a quick FAQ to get you up to speed on why this news is interesting and how it fits with another recent Dell Linux-related announcement involving the use of Linux "instant-on" laptop technology:

How does Moblin differ from other Linux distros? Intel originally created Moblin as a ready-made platform for its Atom processor line. That means Moblin is designed specifically as a lightweight, energy-efficient distro, thanks to various tweaks to its Linux kernel, drivers, user interface and power management capabilities.

If Moblin is a separate Linux distro, why are companies like Novell and Canonical supporting it? Since Moblin is built on free, open-source code, anyone is free to adapt it to their own uses. That is exactly what a number of distributors are doing by using various pieces of Moblin combined with components from their own Linux distros. Canonical, for example, has partnered with Dell and Intel to create its "Ubuntu Moblin Remix."

Why would Canonical do that? There are a couple of reasons. For starters, Dell already has a business relationship with Canonical and offers Ubuntu as a pre-installed option on several systems. Integrating Ubuntu with Moblin allows both companies to extend this relationship as Dell moves into the netbook market -- and, eventually, into smartphones and other devices.

This relationship will also benefit users. By integrating Moblin with Ubuntu, for example, Dell netbook users will have ready access to a huge, easily accessible library of Linux software packages.

So, where can I pick up one of Dell's new Moblin netbooks? You can buy a Dell Mini 10v with the Ubuntu Moblin Remix right here for $299. But you probably don't want to do that just yet: Dell has positioned this model as strictly for developers for the time being and warns that it is "not completely stable and bug-free."

On the other hand, anyone who claims to sell an operating system that is "completely stable and bug-free" is probably off their meds. So it's really hard to say how seriously one should take Dell's caveat.

Our company's netbooks run Windows XP. We don't care about this Moblin stuff, anyway. Windows XP would be pushing up daisies by now if netbooks could run Windows Vista. Most of them can't, so Microsoft had to prop up XP in order to keep from ceding the netbook market completely to Linux.

According to Microsoft, Windows 7 will run fine on most netbooks. I would take those claims with a grain of salt: Windows 7 doesn't run amok with hardware resources the way Vista did, but I wouldn't call it "lightweight," either. And since netbook prices are running a breakneck race to the bottom, the netbook business model is deeply problematic for Microsoft.

Wait a minute! Isn't Moblin supposed to be one of those "instant-on" operating systems that actually works with a Windows laptop? You have the right idea but the wrong project. There are a number of initiatives to create laptops that actually run two operating systems: the regular, full-blown desktop OS; and a much smaller, lightweight "instant-on" OS that will give users quick access to email, the Web, and other basic features while using a lot less battery power.

In fact, Dell is one of the companies investing in the development of an instant-on option for its laptops. The Latitude ON is a Linux-based OS that is actually built into a "system on a chip" including an ultra low-power ARM processor, flash memory, and drivers for things like the network card, keyboard/mouse and display. As this article points out, it's a solution designed to give users fast access to their email, Web browser, document viewers, and a few other must-have tools -- and it can, in theory, stretch laptop battery life "from hours to days by sidestepping Windows entirely."

Haven't you made noise in the past about Linux and ARM processors? Yes, I have. The Intel Atom may be relatively cheap, lightweight, and energy-efficient, but the ARM architecture generally blows the Atom away on all three counts. That makes it an ideal processor for netbooks that can retail for well under $200.

As I pointed out a while back, however, you can't run any Windows desktop OS on an ARM--powered netbook. If you want to go there -- and the price tag will make a lot of people want to do just that -- you'll have to work with Linux.

But a lot of people say that Linux doesn't have a future in the netbook market. It sounds like they're wrong. It sure does, doesn't it?