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03 April 2009, 12:34


Quo vadis, Moblin?

The Linux Foundation has taken over the helm of the Moblin Project, which was previously run under the Intel flag. Will other manufacturers be joining the project now that it's no longer owned by Intel, or could the split-off from Intel be the beginning of the end of the open source platform?

Mirko Dölle

The excursion of the processor giant Intel into the world of operating system production seems to have ended less than two years after it began, as Intel is handing over control of the Moblin Project to the Linux Foundation. This opens up new prospects for the Project in terms of supporting partners and hardware platforms, but it also involves the risk of Intel's commitment slacking off in the future, thus bringing further development to a juddering halt.

Moblin began with the advent of MIDs (mobile internet devices), a new class of particularly small mini-PCs designed for surfing the web. They were intended to be fitted with the very low-power (for an x86-compatible CPU) Atom processor instead of the usual industry standard of an embedded processor or system-on-a-chip (SoC), as Nokia did at the time with its 770 and N800 Internet Tablets. It was also hoped that the Atom processor would find a place in the domain of in-vehicle entertainment systems. Like Nokia, Intel wanted to use a version of Linux adapted to mobile devices as an operating system.

So some developers on the Intel payroll started working on porting Linux to the up-coming MID platform. When, in the middle of 2007, the basic system had been completed and the application framework had also been defined, Intel lifted the Moblin Project from the baptismal font in order to further develop the future Linux platform with help from the Linux community.

But Intel hadn't reckoned with Asus. The Eee PC, also fitted with Intel's Atom processor, became an astonishing top seller. Suddenly there was no further demand for an MID costing several hundred euros when a netbook could be had for 300 euros. That also induced the Moblin Project to change its focus so that it now officially supported netbooks as well as MIDs.

Over time, the options available in netbooks have steadily advanced. Given large SSDs (solid state disks) or conventional notebook hard disks, more RAM and larger displays, it was no longer necessary to use a particularly lean version of Linux – even Windows XP could now be installed. That brought about a dramatic fall in the number of netbooks sporting Linux.

For Intel, as a chip giant, it may be immaterial in the end whether Atom processors are fitted to MIDs or to netbooks – apart from the fact that a netbook needs no dedicated Linux system. And, in the automobile sector, Intel can rely on its collaborator and specialist in embedded Linux, Wind River, and its Wind River Linux for Atom, so it no longer appears imperatively necessary for development to be carried on in-house. If Intel had wanted to withdraw from developing Moblin, it could have shed its responsibility for the project elegantly on handing Moblin over to the Linux Foundation. It is admittedly said that Intel programmers will be continuing to help out with work on Moblin, but that isn't something written in stone.

On the other hand, the hiving-off of Moblin from Intel also offers the prospect of other manufacturers, such as Nokia, being persuaded to cooperate by porting Moblin to other hardware architectures. It's another matter, of course, whether a company like Nokia would want to be involved in a project run by Intel, or whether Intel and Nokia would work together on an open source project under the neutral leadership of the Linux Foundation.

A further advantage for Intel is that, by passing Moblin to the Linux Foundation, Intel again gets out of the operating system business and remains primarily a hardware manufacturer, rather than a competitor to some of it's good clients, like Microsoft for example.

The near future will show how things will proceed with Moblin. As far as in-car entertainment is concerned, the prototype of the newly hatched Genevi consortium is to be published as open source this summer. In any case, there are no specific indications at the moment of Intel's wanting to drop Moblin.

This article originally appeared in heise open

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