The mobile Linux world is about to get simpler, as Nokia's Maemo platform for handheld mobile devices and Intel's Moblin project for netbooks are merging. The combined "MeeGo" stack will still differentiate between device types at the "user experience" level, but will share the same system-level components and, hopefully, unite developer communities by offering a common base. The announcement was made on February 15th, with content and details continuing to roll out on the meego.com site.
Nokia started Maemo in 2005, which was first delivered on a series of WiFi-connected pocket tablets without cellular connectivity, but eventually moving into mobile phones with the 2009 launch of the N900. Moblin was launched in 2007 by Intel, targeting netbooks running on Intel Atom processors. In April of 2009, Intel signed governance of the project over to the non-profit Linux Foundation, but continued to guide its development. Moblin publicly released 2.0 "beta" code for netbooks in May, but previewed an update of the stack running on Atom-powered phones in September.
The mobile industry trade press, understandably, is reporting on the MeeGo announcement as a defensive move to counter the challenge posed by Google's Android (and, to a lesser extent, ChromeOS). Android has seen tremendous growth in the past year, with more than two dozen products now shipping from a variety of device manufacturers. But while Android may seem like a more direct challenge to Maemo, it is not limited to phones. Several products have been announced that edge further into the device space sought by Moblin, including netbooks, tablets, and e-book readers. Nor is Google the only mobile operating system vendor producing a Linux-based platform for portable devices; Palm, Samsung, and the multi-manufacturer consortium called the LiMo Foundation all produce competing offerings.
However, within the spectrum of mobile Linux operating systems, Moblin and Maemo were already the two projects with the greatest overlap in terms of technical design and governance structure. Android, ChromeOS, and Palm's webOS all use the Linux kernel and portions of the same software stack found on graphical desktops, but provide limited APIs for application deployment. While source code for upstream components is available for all Linux-based operating systems, the platforms still differ in terms of openness. Android and ChromeOS are freely available to outside platform developers, and accept patches and bug reports. The LiMo Platform includes components contributed by member handset makers, including some that are proprietary and is governed by its member contributors. Palm's webOS and Samsung's newly-announced Bada are single-vendor products.
Maemo and Moblin both started with existing desktop Linux distributions: Maemo was originally based on Debian, Moblin on Fedora, although both incorporated technology from other distributions as well. Underneath, however, they ran strikingly similar middleware platforms. Both used X, GLib, D-Bus, Pango, Cairo, GStreamer, Evolution Data Server, PulseAudio, Mozilla's Gecko HTML rendering engine, Telepathy, ConnMan, and a host of other common utilities. GNOME's Dave Neary even commented on the similarity in response to concerns that there were "too many" mobile Linux platforms. In addition, both projects sought to make their platforms fully accessible to third-party developers, without the need to license an SDK or, in most cases, to code to different APIs. Both worked to develop active, open communities around the code base.
In retrospect, though, perhaps the clearest harbinger of the merge is oFono, the open telephony stack project
launched jointly by Intel and Nokia in May of 2009. The closed source
telephony stack included in the N900 was a lightning rod for criticism from
free software advocates — though Nokia justified its decision to write
a new stack from scratch — but, prior to Monday's announcement, Intel's
involvement in oFono stood out as an oddity. Now it makes sense.
Merging, nuts and bolts
In spite of the similarities, Maemo and Moblin did have their differences, particularly in the choice for top-level toolkit. Moblin used GTK+ and Clutter as its preferred toolkits, while the latest Maemo release was in the process of switching over to Qt.
As posted on the MeeGo web site, the combined platform closely resembles the Moblin base, but with Qt as the interface toolkit. The architecture diagram provided is vague, listing components only as "Internet Services," "Media Services," "Data Management," and so forth, but according to additional information provided by MeeGo, most of the stack remains unchanged from Moblin 2.0.
Both Qt and GTK+/Clutter blocks are shown in the MeeGo architecture
diagram, but the Qt block is three times larger, and the "getting started"
documents in the developers' section of the site only address Qt. Still, the FAQ explicitly says that both toolkits will be supported, so the simplest interpretation of the diagram may just be that Nokia, as corporate owner of Qt, is expected to contribute a larger share of developer-time via its toolkit.
More interesting is the fact that the combined MeeGo platform will support at least two processor architectures, ARM and Atom — in addition to any others championed by the community. The hardware enabling process outlines what the MeeGo project has in mind, with platform maintainers for each architecture overseeing responsibility for kernel, X, bootloader, and other hardware-specific adaptations.
Different devices appear to diverge at top of the stack, however, which
MeeGo describes as the user experience (UX) level. The two UXes discussed
on the site are the Handheld UX and the Netbook UX, which correspond neatly
to the previous Maemo and Moblin product spaces. What is contained in each
UX block is not as clear, however; each definitely includes the basic user
interface and application suite, but according to the architecture diagram
also incorporates a UI framework. Intriguingly, several places on the
MeeGo site mention other UXes, including in-vehicle computers and connected
televisions in particular — one possibility may be from Genivi, a non-profit industry group working on "In-Vehicle Infotainment" systems.
In the past, the UX layer formed a minor point of contention in the Maemo community, because Nokia kept the source code closed to several of its top-level applications. While most accepted the situation, there were always some who objected to the presence of any closed components in the distribution. Nokia responded by providing a detailed list of the closed components, the reasons why each was not opened, and a process through which developers could request the opening of a particular component.
To see precisely what MeeGo devices will include as UX components, one will have to wait for products to ship. The first release of the MeeGo platform itself is slated for the second quarter of 2010, with products following later in the year. Nokia's Quim Gil says that the Maemo 6 release previously scheduled for 2010 will proceed as planned; Maemo will be rebranded as MeeGo, but will not incorporate any changes to the software.
Arguably a bigger challenge than producing a new mobile Linux distribution will be merging the existing Moblin and Maemo user and developer communities. Maemo, being the older, has the more established community, with an active forum, a community council, and extensive documentation and processes for independent application developers to get their software tested and packaged for public release.
Moblin's community is smaller, centered around a pair of mailing lists, and it has a smaller garage of third-party applications. On the other hand, the majority of third-party Moblin applications are Moblin builds of existing desktop Linux applications; in contrast many Maemo projects are either standalone works or heavily-modified applications tailored for the handheld user experience.
Discussions on how to merge the communities have already started within both Moblin and Maemo. The MeeGo site has IRC and mailing list options in place already, but has not yet launched developer documentation or bug tracking. It does, however, outline the participation process for working on MeeGo itself, through the licensing policy and contribution guidelines.
Governance will be
provided by a Technical Steering Group, to be headed by Imad Sousou from
Intel and Valtteri Halla from Nokia, and meeting publicly biweekly. There
is no admission or membership process to become a MeeGo contributor, and
contributing code will require no copyright assignment:
MeeGo project will neither require nor accept copyright assignment for code
contributions. The principle behind this is on the one hand to avoid extra
bureaucracy or other obstacles discouraging contributions. On the other hand the idea is to emphasize that contributors themselves carry the rights and responsibilities associated with their code. MeeGo is a common concern of its project community and all participants should represent themselves and continuously influence the result through their own contribution.
Code contributions are encouraged to take place rather in the upstream component projects than in MeeGo. Project focus is in integrating existing upstream components into a platform release rather than in new code development. Therefore the objective is to minimize MeeGo patch against upstream projects and to avoid accumulating patches which serve other purpose than release integration and stabilization.
Finally, MeeGo raises one other community challenge, that as the only Linux distribution hosted by the vendor-neutral Linux Foundation itself, it could be perceived as an endorsed threat against the mobile Linux offerings of other Foundation members — such as Google.
Executive Director Jim Zemlin says the Foundation has a long history of industry collaboration on technical, legal, and community efforts, and cites other direct competitors such as Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Novell, that participate willingly in projects together, and benefit from the work. The Linux Foundation's job is to protect the ecosystem and the community, he said, and by hosting the MeeGo project it will provide a neutral forum for progress in development, specifications, and governance. This makes MeeGo similar to other Linux Foundation projects, he added, such as Linuxprinting.org, Carrier Grade Linux, accessibility, the Linux Standard Base, and others.
There is no denying that mobile is top-priority target for the Linux community. Android, webOS, and ChromeOS fans may perceive MeeGo as a threat, but when one looks beyond the brand names, the playing field is no different than that on which desktop and server Linux distributions compete: all have access to the same kernel, the same graphics subsystem, utilities and toolkits. No competitor is at a technical disadvantage.
What does make MeeGo unique in the mobile line-up is that it follows the
desktop Linux model so closely. Individually, the Moblin and Maemo
projects used that to their advantage, rapidly building robust communities
and products. The odds are that their combined effort will play much the
same way; if other, less open Linux-based mobile stacks see their sales
threatened as a result, the best response will be for them to change their
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