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Intel: Moblin opens the way for Atom

q&a System software exec Doug Fisher discusses Moblin 2.1's features and benefits, and Intel's overall strategy for its open-source OS.

Doug Fisher
Doug Fisher Intel

For Intel, the driving force behind its Moblin software efforts is its main role in life: a chipmaker.

At the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco last month, the company showed off the latest version of its Linux-based Moblin operating system, designed for smartphones, Netbooks, and Nettops. In most if not all of those cases, the idea is that the device is built around Intel's Atom processor.

Moblin has been slowly catching on in the Netbook arena. Dell, for instance, recently began selling its $299 Mini 10v Notebook with an option for Ubuntu Moblin Remix, and PC makers such as Acer and Asus are also said to be planning Moblin-based Netbooks. Intel is also positioning Moblin 2.1 for all-in-one Nettop PCs, most of which--such as the Asus Eee Top and Dell's Studio One 19--currently run Windows XP.

I recently spoke by phone with Doug Fisher, vice president and general manager at Intel's System Software Division, about the upcoming latest version of Moblin.

Q: Can you tell me what's new in Moblin 2.1 version versus 2.0? What are some of the features and benefits that 2.1 will offer?
Fisher: The way I look at it, 2.1 is obviously an interim improvement over 2.0. So we have the beta release for the Netbooks out there now that people are playing with. We added an element called a Moblin Garage component. It gives the capability to allow developers to start putting applications in this developer store. It's really designed for putting [out] open-source or fully distributable applications or components of applications that developers can use.

Moblin 2.1 is going to be targeted not only for Netbooks but also moving into other form factors like mobile Internet devices or handheld devices, and in-car entertainment--we call that IVI [in-vehicle infotainment]. It's going to add things like 3G support, a connection manager, telephony framework. The input methods are going to be around touch capability and gesture, so we'll be adding those types of support in 2.1.

Version 2.1 is going to be used not only for Netbook and Nettops, but also for handheld form factors. For things like Nettops, we are working on ensuring the capability to support high-resolution screens. We're also looking at incorporating additional social networking support into the platform to continue evolving on the value proposition that Moblin is defined on.

Q: Are there going to be different versions of Moblin for each hardware platform or will it be basically the same operating system with just minor changes for the platform itself?
Fisher: I love when people ask that question because it really helps deliver the message we are trying to get out with this. The whole Moblin infrastructure is a unified stack across all Atom-based devices. All the form factors use the same operating system, offering environments with the same UI framework, the same application framework, the same core apps. So it's really a unified API across all the devices. The benefit of this is that all the optimizations for footprint, boot time, and battery life, all of that carries across all segments that use Atom at the core level. The UI framework and the applications are consistent across all those. Now that's not to say we don't optimize for form factor and input methods and things like that. But the core elements are consistent across all segments. So the idea is you deliver Moblin-compliant operating environments.

We have 17 OSVs [operating-system vendors] that have publicly committed to this, and I think seven to nine, somewhere in that range, have actually made product level commitments. Obviously, we've heard from Novell and Canonical and others. So, yes, it's the same. Really, it gives the OSVs a clear compliance to align behind Moblin, and more importantly the ISVs [independent software vendors] a standard API set to write to in order to ensure their application can be portable across any Moblin-compliant operating environment.

Q: From the consumer point of view, if somebody is running Moblin on a Netbook, a Nettop, and a smartphone, are they going to see a similar UI and similar usability across the different devices, or will that depend more on the manufacturer and what they do with Moblin?
Fisher: One of the big benefits of Moblin is that the UI is customizable. If you're talking about the Nettop and the Netbook space, you are going to see very, very consistent usage criteria for all those devices. So what the "myzone" looks like on a Nettop will be very consistent with the Netbook. It's customizable, so who ever wants to, an OEM or service provider, can create their branding and imaging and add other capabilities. But the idea is when a user participates with a Netbook or Nettop, it's a very familiar engagement, so it's going to be consistent. We also expect in the handheld space that there will be a lot of consistencies across those devices as well. With that said, manufacturers are going to want to really customize, and it's possible to do that within the UI framework.

We had three main areas that we had been driving requirements around, which is Internet usage, media consumption, and social networking. Those are really the three design points Moblin is focused around--that type of device.

Q: I want to talk a little bit about Dell because I know they just came out with a version of their Mini 10v Netbook running [Canonical's] Ubuntu Moblin Remix. What does that refer to? Is that just taking Moblin and coming up with their own customized version? Can you explain what Dell is actually running on their new Netbook?
Fisher: At the highest level, Dell is running Moblin. Moblin is a pure open-source project. It's all open source, so what we rely on is an OSV, like Canonical, to deliver a productized version of the Moblin project. And so what you see in Remix is Canonical's release of the Moblin platform. It's a pure Moblin play, 100 percent aligned with the user interface we described, API-compatible. But they add a lot of value in productizing it, adding other elements that the OEM wants, customizing it.

Q: Can you then talk a little bit about Dell and other notebook vendors looking to run Moblin? What expectations does Intel have for this adoption of Moblin in the notebook market?
Fisher: If you look over the past year and a half, there's been a lot of activities by the OEMs using Linux with Moblin capabilities. But what Moblin has brought is the unification of those capabilities into the release of version 2.0. And what you see from Canonical working with Dell is a unified release. It really is a much more substantial commitment from Canonical and all the other OSVs around this. So what Dell has done is they've released their Mini with [Moblin] to the developer community. The expectation is that in combination with what was announced at IDF, the developer store Intel Atom Developer Program, with platforms from Dell, we really think it's going to drive a lot of innovation around Atom-based devices, in particular around the Moblin development environment. And so down the line, we expect to see OEMs delivering consumer devices as well.

Q: When you think of Linux, you traditionally think of it of it as an operating system that has been adopted more by IT people, technophiles, etc. What do you think has held back the adoption of Linux and what can Intel do to further Linux along so it becomes more of a mass market operating system and not just a niche player?
Fisher: I think there are a couple of things. When you talk about the consumer-visible things like Netbooks, clearly Microsoft is doing great work, and they're delivering a substantial portion of the Nettops and the Netbooks. We had three main areas that we had been driving requirements around, which is Internet usage, media consumption, and social networking. Those are really the three design points Moblin is focused around--that type of device. It's really a different usage experience. What you described is really true. Educating the user to make them comfortable with this type of environment is important, and what they do with this device after they get it is critical.

I also want to say that Linux is absolutely mainstream across many devices. Set-top boxes, TiVo, all these electronics are loaded with embedded Linux. So it's just not visible. It's not merchandized or marketed. But Linux is extremely mainstream across many, many devices today.

Q: Can you describe a bit about the Nettop arena and how Moblin can take advantage of that market, and perhaps what some of the challenges are there?
Fisher: I think at a high level, the usage model is very, very similar to the Netbook. The actual design concept for the Netbook is being scaled because of the screen resolutions to take advantage of the larger screen resolution. The difference in my mind is more around input methods and the resolution of the screen. So there's a lot of innovation going on around the touch and gesture activities on the Nettop. I expect to see manufacturers in the future delivering the Moblin-type capabilities on these devices, as well as the media-phone-type devices and other things that really require an input method like a touch or gesture.

Q: You mentioned before there are already some Nettops running Moblin. Can you talk a little about that?
Fisher: Back in, I think, 2008, there was a big push to deliver Nettops by the OEMs, primarily in Taiwan. What we did was we inserted Moblin's capabilities into the releases, so that when these devices went out into the market, they had the Moblin technology, and capabilities were already available in them. We really dramatically reduced the power consumption with some techniques that we had driven into the Moblin project. We had boot-time capabilities that we had been working aggressively on. We made sure that they were incorporated into those releases. Fundamentally, those devices were released with Moblin technologies, and as I've said, now we've built a Moblin-compliant set of specifications, nearly completed, which really unifies and documents those things. And Moblin version 2 is where that really came together.

At Intel, our goal is to ensure that Netbooks, handheld devices, Nettops--all these are shipping with Atom. That's our pure goal.

Q: What would Intel like to see from vendors and manufacturers?
Fisher: At Intel, our goal is to ensure that Netbooks, handheld devices, Nettops--all these are shipping with Atom. That's our pure goal. We want to be sure we ship Atom platforms. In order to do that, we have to have the best experience. Whether it's Windows or if it's Moblin, it doesn't matter to me.

Q: How does that play into Intel's working relationship with Microsoft in terms of what operating system ends up on these different platforms?
Fisher: At the highest level, we have a great relationship with Microsoft. They're delivering a wonderful operating environment. We're all looking forward to Windows 7. So there's no competition. The only competition we see is ensuring that as a hardware platform company, that we win in the platform space. So it's all about winning the Atom platform. We work very closely with Microsoft to ensure that Intel Architecture [IA] is optimized, that they take full advantage of the architecture and we take full advantage of the capability they deliver. And as the platform of choice, we're going to ensure the same thing when the Linux environment is chosen.

Q: Obviously one challenge of any operating system is getting people to write applications for it. Can you talk about the Atom Developer Program and your goals with it?
Fisher: On a high level, it's really about generating excitement around innovating on Atom. We think that by putting the development platform out there, we're going to get developers to innovate around these specific Atom platforms and then have a mechanism to monetize their efforts. And that's critical to creating demand in the ecosystems. So regardless of whether we're developing on Windows or Moblin, we want to see innovation. So we announced the ability to develop native Moblin applications. We have an SDK to develop natively to Moblin. Windows has always had a very strong presence in the development platform.

Q: I had read something about Moblin 2.0 supporting Android applications. Is that correct at this point?
Fisher: No, there are no plans for that.

Q: I had read some stories at one point that they're looking at supporting Android apps?
Fisher: There was a technology demonstration--open-source projects. There's a lot of innovation going on. But there's no product commitment. It's all community-type stuff. I think Ubuntu is doing some stuff.

Q: As far as the mobile device and notebooks as well, obviously Android is the other prominent player as far as open source on those different platforms. How does Intel see the arena between Moblin and Android? Is that an area of competition or more a peaceful co-existence between the two? Do you think the market can support both environments or is one going to have to be dominant over the other?
Fisher: It's a big market. Our focus at Intel, we're just maniacal on delivering the best platform for Atom, in this case the Atom version of our architecture. I'm focused on that. The Moblin effort is 100 percent focused from an Intel perspective. It's an open-source project. Our Intel effort is all around delivering the rich Internet experience, media consumption, social networking for these types of devices. A popular choice for Atom-based platforms is Moblin. So we are going to optimize the heck out of that. It's not about competition. For me, it's about selling Atoms. It's about us delivering the best experience on our Atom platform so that they sell.

Q: Moblin [2.1] is in a trial or beta stage right now. When is 2.1 scheduled to officially hit the market as a final release?
Fisher: Well, to hit the market is kind of a question for the OSVs and the OEMs. They are really the ones that productize and finalize it. From a community effort, we are expecting 2.1 capabilities in the October time frame for Netbooks so that then they can be productized. And then later on, late this year, first of next year, for the handheld-type devices, you'll see capabilities in the communities to productize those. We are really driving a timed market around our Moorestown platform for those types of things for 2.1.