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Not quite precious: openSUSE releases Smeegol

October 18, 2010

This article was contributed by Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier.

It's been a rocky road for the openSUSE Goblin team. Initially an attempt to create an openSUSE netbook release based on openSUSE and Moblin (Goblin) that was led by Andrew Wafaa, the shift from Moblin to MeeGo took the project back a few steps. Now under the name Smeegol, the openSUSE netbook release is finally at 1.0 — but how does it fare? Smeegol 1.0 is an interesting release, but it's still rough around the edges.

It is not surprising that Smeegol has some rough edges. MeeGo itself — despite the 1.0 label — is still a work in progress, as LWN's resident Grumpy Editor discovered back in June following the 1.0 Core release.

There's also the fact that the MeeGo project doesn't seem to be going out of its way to work with distributions to produce derivatives. According to a recent post from Fedora Project Leader Jared Smith, the project hasn't released its compliance specifications to allow projects to use the MeeGo trademark. In an email exchange, Wafaa said that "it appears that things aren't as open now that it's MeeGo... there are certainly more hurdles in the way - the rigid trademark requirements are one example."

It does appear that MeeGo has at least a draft compliance document for trademark usage. It's rather detailed, and forbids the MeeGo Core packages from being repackaged in the creation of a compliant implementation. At this point, it may be moot anyway — at least for the Fedora 14 release. Peter Robinson threw in the towel on the "mobility spin" based on MeeGo for the Fedora 14 release, citing "contention upstream" as well as a lack of time to finish it for the Fedora 14 release.

Wafaa also says that MeeGo "doesn't appear to be too happy in a helping way with other distros re-spinning." When working with Moblin for the Goblin netbook project, Wafaa said that Intel seemed happy with projects using the user experience (UX) on top of another distro. Indeed, Intel took pains to assure the community that Moblin was not meant to be a distribution, but a reference platform. In one of its FAQs for Moblin developers, Intel touts the Moblin derivatives and says "Moblin is an open source project, not a product."

MeeGo, on the other hand, seems a bit less eager to encourage offshoots and less responsive to requests. It wasn't until Smeegol was released that Ibrahim Haddad, director of technical alliances for the Linux Foundation, responded to the numerous requests about trademark usage. More discouragingly, Haddad says that the name Smeegol "is not in the benefit of MeeGo project" and requests that the project choose a new name.

In a reaction to the trademark rejection, Wafaa posted about the difficulties in working with MeeGo. According to Wafaa, MeeGo has "closed the door" on contributions, and says that MeeGo appears to want "to build a community from OEMs and Partners" to the exclusion of the wider community.

The switch from Moblin to MeeGo also impacted the Goblin/Smeegol development. Novell's engineers moved away from using a SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) base and to using MeeGo upstream. When Novell was working on Moblin, Wafaa says he could reuse much of that team's work in trying to package Goblin, but now the work doesn't carry over to openSUSE/Goblin as easily since it takes place in the MeeGo build system and is not SLED-based. MeeGo uses RPM for its package system, but the packages are built exclusively for the MeeGo distribution, and aren't compatible with Fedora or openSUSE.

The Smeegol Experience

So how does Smeegol stack up? Smeegol is somewhat discriminating in what hardware it will run on. The post announcing Smeegol noted that it does not yet play well in virtualized environments, and attempting to install the Smeegol 1.0 release in VMware Workstation predictably ended unsuccessfully. The installer image also choked when trying to boot Smeegol on an Acer netbook with the dreaded Intel Poulsbo chipset.

Using the "one-click" installer for openSUSE 11.3, Smeegol installed almost without a hitch on a regular laptop with an Nvidia card and an Atom-based Asus 1000HA Eee PC already loaded with openSUSE 11.3. Almost, in that the ksmolt package had to be removed from both systems to successfully log into the MeeGo UX. The Nvidia laptop also required that I install the Nvidia driver, as Smeegol doesn't seem to like the Nouveau driver installed by default.

[Zones]

Smeegol inherits the MeeGo interface, with all that entails. That is to say, it's an interesting attempt to make the most of the netbook screen size that works well in some ways, but falls down in others. The interface is particularly frustrating when running several distinct applications and/or running applications that are not customized for the MeeGo interface. Rather than desktops, applications run in "Zones" for each window — which means a lot of switching back and forth, seeing one application at a time. In some cases only one window of an application at a time.

A primary example would be GIMP, which has a default of three windows — the primary window for the image being edited, and two toolbars. Of course, it's unfair to lay all the blame on MeeGo or Smeegol here — GIMP is not an application that shines in a 1024x600 interface no matter what desktop environment it's running in. At least GIMP opens all of its windows in a single Zone, so it doesn't necessitate switching back and forth. Empathy, the default IM client, opens the contact list in one Zone and chats in another Zone — which makes it very confusing. In short, many applications are slightly out of place when run in the MeeGo UX.

[Myzone]

For users that are sticking to "netbook" applications, this isn't much of a problem. Smeegol's default browser (Chromium) blends into the environment, and there's a customized Banshee interface for MeeGo/Smeegol, as well a as custom Evolution interface, and so on. If you're using Smeegol for a netbook that will be doing netbook-type tasks (light Web browsing, mail, social media, etc.) then it's very pleasant to use. This is not a power-user's interface, though.

Since Smeegol inherits so much from MeeGo, is there an advantage in running Smeegol over MeeGo? If users care about a wider range of packages than offered for MeeGo, or running on a wider range of hardware, the answer is yes. MeeGo doesn't offer many applications that users might want, like GIMP, AbiWord, etc. Smeegol may also be preferable for some users because of what it doesn't offer. Specifically, it uses the more mature NetworkManager instead of the default ConnMan, which is MeeGo's connection manager.

Smeegol is offered as a 32-bit or 64-bit release, and users can install any packages from the openSUSE repositories. Wafaa also says that Smeegol should have a wider range of hardware support, and does not require CPUs with SSE3 support — so older Eee PCs (for example) should work with Smeegol whereas MeeGo does not.

Smeegol is also, unlike MeeGo, a multiuser system. So if you share a netbook with a friend or family member, you can each have separate accounts. This is a good thing, since much of the system is meant to support very personal services like Facebook, Twitter, email, and so on.

Unfortunately, Smeegol inherits one of MeeGo's less charming traits: The complete and befuddling lack of a shutdown or logout button. It seems to be a debate within MeeGo circles whether a netbook requires this, since the hardware will (in theory) be fully supported and users will simply suspend the system or power off using the hardware power button. Right now this is a bit glitchy on Smeegol, which powers off almost instantly if you press the power button. And if you wish to let someone else log in, it necessitates killing X with the Ctrl-Alt-Backspace combo.

The Smeegol Future

Now that 1.0 has been released, what's next? Wafaa says that work has already begun on Smeegol 1.1, and he'd like to also develop a tablet version based on MeeGo 1.1 as well. openSUSE's Andreas Jaeger says that it's not yet certain whether Smeegol will be an official part of the 11.4 release, but would like to see that happen.

Whether it makes it in probably depends on the success of Smeegol 1.0, and whether it serves as a catalyst to recruit more contributors. Wafaa noted that Smeegol is not a Novell-initiated project, though some of the team working with MeeGo from Novell have contributed as individuals. Much, though not all, of the work is being done by Wafaa in his spare time. More contributors would no doubt be very helpful to ensuring that it becomes a long-term offering and an official part of openSUSE.

Smeegol is worth a look for openSUSE users who would like a customized netbook release, and for users who want the MeeGo UX without being limited to the MeeGo ecosystem of software. Smeegol has some warts, but most of those are related to the MeeGo heritage and are bound to improve over time as MeeGo matures. One hopes that the naming situation can be resolved amicably between openSUSE and the Linux Foundation, and that MeeGo will improve its coordination with downstream projects.

Comments (3 posted)

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Distribution quotes of the week

> Why are we convinced throwing away bugs is a good idea?

Thank you for helping to make Ubuntu better!

Unfortunately, you've not provided enough information for us to respond to the issue you've raised. We are marking your email Incomplete for now; it will expire in 30 days if we do not hear from you by then.

-- Bryce Harrington responds to Scott Kitterman

* if we are not granted the "right" (whatever that might mean) to use the "MeeGo" trademark to refer to the "software that comes out of the MeeGo project", what are we supposed to use instead? (Please don't make us use things like "the name everyone knows but that I can't write").
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