Moblin netbook Linux preview

Intel's Moblin 2.0 Linux desktop for netbooks is really still too raw to be called a beta, but with a fresh take on what a desktop should be, it's showing great promise.

When Intel announced that it was turning its Moblin mobile Linux project over to the Linux Foundation, I assumed that it had decided to walk away from the project. Then, Intel announced that it was partnering with Novell to bring pre-installed Moblin desktops to netbooks. At this point, I was really puzzled. But, then Intel released the new version of Moblin and their moves suddenly made sense.

Intel wants to compete with its long-time partner Microsoft in the operating system business. To do that, Intel wants broad support from the Linux community. Intel doesn't want Moblin to be 'Intel Moblin,' the company wants it to be Linux's Moblin with support from everyone.

Thus, what we have is a Linux desktop that's built on top of a Fedora Linux framework; uses GNOME for its desktop and applications, and will rely on Novell/SUSE to get customized versions of the desktop pre-installed on the Taiwanese OEM (original equipment manufacturers) netbooks. Its main competition: Windows 7, but Google Android also looms as a desktop Linux challenger.

How does Moblin stack up? Well, the look is great, and it's not quite like any other desktop I've ever seen. The closest thing I've seen to it in recent memory is gOS, which puts Google applications on top of an Ubuntu Linux base.

Instead of giving you applications to choose from, Moblin gives you functions from a top menu bar that's hidden until you need it. So, for example, when you boot Moblin, you don't see a desktop full of icons or menus, you see your appointments and frequently used applications. The interface, called M-Zone is all about letting you get to your Internet functions as fast as possible.

Note I say, 'functions,' not applications. Intel tries to make the applications invisible. Instead of opening the Web browser, which is based on Firefox 3.0.10, to see what's happening on your Twitter and Facebook accounts, you can see what's what with you social network friends right from the M-Zone interface.

You see Moblin is all about letting you use what you already use on the Internet, and not letting either the operating system or the applications get in the way. I see Intel trying to do for the netbook desktop what Apple did with the PC desktop: get out of the user's way so they can do what they want to do with the minimum of interference.

For Linux power users, and I'm one of them, who want to control every last thing on my PC, this isn't that attractive a notion. But, I know that for many netbook users, who just want fast and easy Internet access, this could be a real winner.

So, if you want to IM a buddy, watch a video, whatever, Moblin tries to make it as easy as possible. It does have some traditional applications, like a spreadsheet and word-processor, but they're not heavy-duty office suite tools. The word-processor, for example is GNOME's gedit, which no one will ever mistake for OpenOffice Writer.

Moblin also uses virtual desktops, called zones, but it has a different take on them. Instead of requiring you to create a virtual desktop, they're created on the fly when you need one. Want to keep all your Web activity in one zone, and work on a report in another, just assign it to another zone, and -- pop! -- the new zone is created and your word processor is already there.

Does that sound difficult? It's not. Moblin is all about providing an attractive, consistent look and ease of use. Sometimes that consistent look, for long time Linux users, will surprise you. For instance, some applications won't offer all the options you expect them to have.

Some of this has been done to keep the look and feel of the interface uniform, but it's also to make Moblin faster than fast. I've never seen any operating system, except for instant-on, embedded desktop Linuxes like SplashTop, boot so quickly. 

Once up, the desktop felt incredibly fast. If I didn't know I was running it on 1.6GHz Aton equipped netbooks with 512MBs to 1 GB of RAM, I never would have guessed I was running it on such low-end hardware. Moblin is the anti-Vista. It runs great on minimal equipment instead of requiring the fastest possible hardware and still running at a snail's pace. 

Still, at this early stage, Moblin doesn't work and play well on many platforms. For example, I, and many others, have found that it's default Wi-Fi drivers won't work with the Dell Mini 9's Wi-Fi chipset. It also has some holes in it. For example, although Flash is supposed to be already installed, it's not and there's no easy way to get Flash to work with it.

I can only recommend people who like living on technology's bleeding edge giving Moblin a try at this point. That said, if Intel, Novell and friends can get Moblin to deliver on the promise of its remarkably fast performance and function-based interface, I think we've got another real winner coming in what's already shaping up to be a great year for Linux netbooks.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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