A few weeks ago, Nokia and Intel announced a merger of the Maemo and Moblin projects. The resulting platform shocked the world. OK, it only shocked the communities (the third amigo) involved. Yours truly wanted to blog about it badly weeks ago. But I apparently never got the knack of timing and priorities just right. So please forgive my late entry into the fray, and accept this out-of-sync piece of journalism.
Sidenotes for the Technically Curious
I will touch on a few things that uninitiated might find confusing. Without getting into the nitty-gritty technical details there are a few things some readers should know. A stack or platform refers to a collection of software that works together to perform some larger task. In the context of this article, a stack includes the operating system, libraries for supporting applications and system programs that provide services for user applications. User applications being any program a user would use and identify on a device. UI refers to the user interface for a program, namely all the buttons, sliders and widgets a user can interact with. Packages refer to installable applications in the Linux world. A library is just a bit of code shared by different applications.
Aside from that glossary, please keep in mind that due to physical constraints small mobile devices will always be underpowered compared to full-scale computers. There is just so much processor power and memory that can be crammed into a small handheld device before the device will use so much power that it will drain a conventional battery in minutes. Batteries can only hold so much power without being physically bigger and heavier. Thats why it is essential for anyone programming something like a cellphone to write code that is fast, efficient and doesn’t use too much memory. On that note, programmers have the option of writing native or interpreted applications. Native applications essentially instruct a device using machine code. Interpreted applications need to first run on a special interpreter program that transform the code into machine code. For that reason alone, the same code/algorithm running on native application will always be faster than an interpreted application.
The Birth of MeeGo
The MeeGo project comes from two very different but equally important platforms: Maemo and Moblin. Intel created Moblin as a Linux stack optimized for netbooks. Nokia created Maemo as a Linux stack optimized for pocket computers/handheld Internet tablets. Aside from using Linux, a conventional GCC and Gtk technologies, the Moblin and Maemo platforms are radically different. Moblin targets Intel Atom (x86) powered netbooks. Maemo runs on ARM powered mobile devices. Moblin uses RPM package management. Maemo stems from Debian and uses DEBs. The UI is radically different for both platforms. Moblin exists as a developer preview and doesn’t ship on any production run of netbooks (as far as I am aware). Maemo runs on Nokia’s N700, N800, N810 Internet tablets and the N900 smartphone. Oddly enough Nokia still considers Maemo a “developer” platform. Or rather considered it a developing platform, up until the announcement of MeeGo. Now Maemo is effectively a dead platform.
Quite naturally both the Maemo and Moblin communities were shocked at the announcement. Considering how MeeGo is structured, the Moblin community just reacted with a surprised “Oh, thats nice.”. The Maemo crowd didn’t take the news as well. No wonder considering that many early adopters and developer paid a lot for the expensive must-have toy, the N900. Mine own cost around 550 USD, but came out to over 600 USD after taxes, parcel forwarding to Canada (damn you CRTC, Bell , and Rogers for having a bizarre GSM network) and customs. Many people were looking forward to a bright future with Maemo6. Instead lots felt that Nokia pulled the rug from underneath their feet. Needless to say a lot of dust and fuss got kicked up.
We Go into the Future
As soon as the announcement came out, the Nokians found themselves with a farther despondent and worried Maemo community. The Maemo community felt that their expensive toys would eventually become expensive paperweights. However Nokia announced that the new MeeGo platform will work on Maemo devices, especially the N900. No promises that MeeGo will get optimized to work smoothly on N900s, but a working platform is better than no platform. So with the community calmed down but cautious, what are the next steps for the MeeGo project? Well most of the Maemo community web resources are transitioning to MeeGo. Maemo developers and packagers will need to learn how to build RPMs instead of DEBs for MeeGo. The MeeGo folks chose to go with Moblin developer tools, simply because the tools are far more mature than Maemo’s. Fortunately the majority of the Maemo community applications are open source, so in theory simply recompiling and repackaging the applications is all that is required to get Maemo apps running in MeeGo. Also the MeeGo platform will use the Qt library heavily. Since Qt is one of the most cross-platform toolkits/libraries out there, developers will benefit from learning a single library that will run on nearly ALL operating systems.
As a Non-Maemo/Non-Moblin User Why Should I Care?
Now most people who use netbooks or smartphones do not use either Maemo or Moblin. No surprise since both platforms are currently targeted toward developers and early adopters. Most netbook users use either Windows 7 or a Linux variant. While most smartphone users use Symbian, Windows Mobile, Apple’s iPhone OS or Android. Heck even Palm’s WebOS supports more devices than what MeeGo will support from the get-go. So why should anyone care? Well in the netbook category, Linux at least is consider a serious alternative to the Windows monopoly. However the user experience on most Linux netbooks ranks from “decent” to “ho-hum”. The Moblin (now MeeGo) project worked heavily on making the user experience on netbooks a lot, a lot nicer. I would even dare say, a sexy user experience.
This is were MeeGo can shine, by providing native Qt applications with rich user experiences. Nokia and Intel want to work with other device manufacturers to build MeeGo powered solutions. Solutions such as advanced in-car entertainment systems. By building on a single platform, there will a lot less repeated work on building the necessary underlying platform. Instead everyone can focus on building interesting new user experiences, and applications that link with systems in new, unimagined ways. Of course, only time will tell if any of these blue sky dreams will become reality. A MeeGo release for currently existing hardware such as netbooks or N900s, will be a definite step in the right direction.