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Analysis: Behind the Ubuntu/Moblin Collaboration

For two years, Canonical Ltd., the commercial sponsor of Ubuntu Linux, has been deeply involved in the Moblin mobile Linux project from its start.

Last week, Canonical took another step forward in its commitment to Moblin by announcing plans to develop a new Ubuntu product that's built atop the latest Moblin v2 beta code. Moblin v2 is the latest incarnation of the project's mobile Netbook- and Mobile Internet Device-focused operating system.

Yet this won't be the first time Ubuntu has built an operating system for this segment. Last June, Ubuntu unveiled Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR), a slimmed-down version of Ubuntu's desktop Linux version, aimed straight at Netbooks. Three weeks later, Ubuntu announced its own Mobile Internet Device (MID) edition 8.04, which was slated for use on handheld mobile Internet devices that use Intel Corp.'s Atom processors.

So why all the different Ubuntu options and what do they mean for users and OEMs that are building Netbooks and MIDs?

The idea, said Gerry Carr, Canonical's marketing manager, is that it will allow Ubuntu to ensure compatibility between its existing Remix version with the fledgling Moblin v2 beta code by placing the Remix version atop the Moblin v2 beta framework, while maintaining separate products. OEM device manufacturers will be able to decide what operating systems to use on their devices, giving them choice in applications.

This latest Moblin v2 beta is an optimized and standardized product that includes a common core of application and user interface services and APIs, according to Moblin organizers.

'Moblin v2 is much more advanced' than the earlier version, Carr said, which is a prime reason for Canonical's latest adaptation of the product. 'We're being consistent to our commitment to Intel around Moblin. We want to make sure that when OEMs engage with us ' that they have the choice of [Ubuntu-enabled] Moblin, rather than go somewhere else.'

And that marketplace is beginning to get crowded lately.

Last month, Novell Inc. announced that it, too, will create a Moblin-based product for Netbooks, adding to the list of options for OEMs. Google Inc. also offers its Android operating system, while Microsoft Corp. will have its own version based on the upcoming Windows 7 operating system.

'Competition will allow OEMs to have differentiation in the market with different features, but similar look and feel, and they will share many features,' Carr said. 'That's what I expect to happen.'

No devices have yet been released for sale featuring Moblin because it's still in beta, he said. It will be ready later this year and there shouldn't be a long ramp-up between Moblin going to a general release and it showing up on new devices, according to Carr. 'By the end of the year, I expect to see Moblin-enabled products in the marketplace,' he said.

'For people inside the industry, we've been talking about this for a long time,' he said. 'Now others see it's really happening. I think up until this week, it's been a little low visibility ' we've been working more on the plumbing. Now it's a beautiful fountain that the world can see,' he said of Moblin.

'We've been hearing about the dominance of Microsoft,' he said. 'This will bring a lot more energy to the Linux side. I think that's exciting for handset manufacturers. I don't think anyone relishes the monopoly of Microsoft. An open platform is good for everybody.'

By integrating its Ubuntu Netbook Remix version with the Moblin v2 beta, Canonical will be committing engineering staff time and money to the project, Carr said.

So will there will a market for all of these competitors in the space?

'It depends on how you look at it,' he said. 'It's unclear where Google will want to go with Android, whether they want it on Netbooks or handsets. There's a difference between the Netbook and handset markets. So yes, I think there's room.'

Analyst Michael E. Dortch of DortchOnIT.com in Santa Rosa, CA, called the pending Ubuntu/Moblin mash-up 'a great thing for Linux and a great thing for netbook users, even those who never notice or pay attention.'

'For Linux, it's another demonstration of the power and flexibility of that operating environment and the people and companies supporting and developing it,' he said. 'And it's another brand-building step for Ubuntu, giving the company more opportunities as well as more responsibilities to deliver "business-class" and "enterprise-class" solutions and support.'

Meanwhile, for Netbook users this collaboration and 'any other credible alternatives to Windows will broaden choice, help to keep costs and prices down, and push developers supporting Moblin, Ubuntu and Windows just that much harder to deliver features that provide meaningful user benefits, Dortch said. Users want these kinds of devices to be more comparable to mobile telephones than to full-blown computers in terms of reliability and ease of use, he said, so developers need tools and platforms that are simultaneously robust, stable, flexible, well-supported and aggressively inexpensive to deliver what users want. 'Moblin may deliver some of these characteristics, but serious vendor support and commitment is required to complete the picture. Ultimately, Ubuntu Netbook Remix may become for Moblin the conceptual analog to what Sun's StarOffice is to OpenOffice.org--fundamentally the same offering, made more immediately usable to developers and users and supported by services and vendors at least comparable to their traditional commercial cousins.'

Bill Weinberg, principal analyst with Linux Pundit in Aptos, CA, said those continuing dynamics are what make this landscape uncertain.

One lesson to be learned, Weinberg said, comes from the failed UnitedLinux venture that began in 2002, when four Linux companies joined forces to create a standardized, certified and robust enterprise-focused version of the open-source operating system. Instead of combining forces, the partners were soon torn apart by a series of major legal and marketing problems.

The worry he has with Moblin, Weinberg said, is that while end users don't necessarily care about what operating systems runs these kinds of devices, if they see a Windows option ' even for a higher price--they'll likely choose it because it's what they are used to at home and work.

'So as much as I like, personally and technically, what Canonical/Ubuntu are doing, it won't make a dent in the re-established dominance of [Microsoft] on that class of mobile devices,' Weinberg said. 'Moblin has the additional challenge of building its user interface on Clutter, which is visually attractive and compelling, but also more demanding, video hardware-wise.'

Instead of trying to compete with Microsoft in the growing but low-margin Netbook market, Weinberg said Moblin and its backers should concentrate on the more lucrative smartphone market, where Windows isn't as huge a competitor.

'The problem is, if Moblin comes out as this de facto standard like UnitedLinux did, then you'll have the same problem you had with UnitedLinux' coming apart at the seams, Weinberg said. Initially, Netbooks running Linux were first on the scene, so they were bought up, he said. But once Microsoft starting getting into it with Windows, consumers shifted their allegiances, even though the devices cost a little more.

'The vision for Netbooks was they were going to be light devices that could access the cloud,' he said. 'But one of the first things people are doing with Windows Netbooks is to make sure Microsoft Office is on them, not accessing the cloud.'

Consumers are trained to buy higher specifications than what they currently need in their new hardware, and this pattern continues with Netbooks, he said. 'So the whole system is stacked against' the idea of Moblin. 'That means that in order to gain traction in mobile computing, the idea is that the place to go is from Netbooks to the phone ecosystem where you're partnering with phone makers.'

For Linux and Moblin, the future is in markets where Microsoft is not strong and hasn't succeeded, he said.

 

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